A couple of years ago I went on a date with a guy who declared over dinner that:
"As long as you've got both legs there is no reason why anyone can't run the marathon".
Before we'd even chosen dessert, I realised this wasn't the man for me - he wasn't really going to 'get' the whole Cystic Fibrosis thing.
Yesterday the Government announced further measures against disability benefits, looking to cut back on those who receive Incapacity benefit, or the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) that has replaced it, and move them back into work. My concern is that those who reassess claimants may well turn out to be like my 'Marathon man' date - and just not get the huge impact hidden illnesses have on a person's everyday capacity to function. Lord knows, I never thought there would come a day when I looked at a single flight of stairs with such trepidation, but what is easy for the well person can literally feel like a mountain to climb for the ill.
The Citizens advice bureau released a report in March this year, outlining their concerns surrounding the ESA Work Capability Assessment that assesses what work new claimants of ESA can actually do. It found that a man with Parkinson's who couldn't stand for more than ten minutes, slurred his speech and has significant short-term memory loss was deemed able to work. A man who had incurable stomach and bowel cancer had been found fit to work as he'd mentioned in his medical that he does try to go for a short walk once a day. He successfully appealed the decision, but he should never have had to go through the stress of needing to do so in the first place.
Both these cases deal with 'hidden' disabilities, where the claimant has all their limbs and can move around, albeit with incredible discomfort. I've talked before about the ESA form in a previous blog, but its over-simplistic form and the short WCA medical assessment seem to place too much focus on whether someone's body can mechanically move, not asking questions on the time involved in medical routines (3-4 hours a day for me), extreme fatigue and pace of deterioration that's at the crux of most 'hidden' illnesses.
David Harker, Chief Executive at Citizens Advice said: "The current test to determine eligibility for ESA isn’t working. Seriously ill and disabled people are being severely let down by the crude approach of the Work Capability Assessment. A much more sophisticated approach is needed, that not only looks at a person’s ability to undertake a certain task on the day of the test, but considers supporting medical evidence and other aspects, such as the variability of a person’s condition and the external barriers they face in finding work."
A report by the Depart of Work and Pensions, found that over a two month period, 68 per cent of new claimants for ESA were found fit to work. Such a high percentage makes me fear that ESA is a benefit that the UK government (past and present) is increasingly loath to support.
Talking about the need to reduce Icapacity benefit in the drive to cut the UK's deficit, George Osbourne said: "It's a choice we all face. It is not a choice we can duck". I'd like to add nor should it be a choice between saving money and forcing seriously ill people back to work due to ill-thought through assessments.