ATOS-ed Again

Just for my DWP diary, I will quickly note that I had another PIP Assessment two or three weeks ago. The actual appointment was far less awful than I was expecting (though whether or not the report they make from it will be remotely accurate remains to be seen) but the experience of getting to and from the building , getting around the building and sitting in the waiting room was awful.

We’d told them in advance that we needed wheelchair access and preferably a ground floor room. Whilst we did get seen in a wheelchair accessible ground floor room, the assessment centre was located really far away from any bus stops and there was no wheelchair accessible route to the building – the choices of routes where “walk on the road cos the pavement is too narrow for a wheelchair” or “Steep ramp up to another slightly less steep ramp followed by 20 metres of cobblestones and then cross the car park while cars are moving”. So, no, not wheelchair accessible at all really.
We spent over an hour in the waiting room, regularly being told it’d be another 10 minutes or so until we were seen. It was an extremely hot day – one of the hottest so far this year and it was hot inside too but no one dared to leave. One woman nearly fainted from the heat. My boyfriend eventually worked out that there was air-conditioning – they just hadn’t considered turning it on. He asked them to turn it on and they did but seriously, who expects vulnerable people to sit for hours in extreme heat and doesn’t think to use the air-con that is available?
And maybe I’m being petty here but: while I avoided the terribly uncomfortable seating by staying in my wheelchair, the seats were laid out in a pattern creating corridors between rows of seats and the pattern left no space for any wheelchair users to park. All three wheelchair users in the room had to just block of a bit of corridor at the end of a row and hope no one would need us to move. It was as if they didn’t expect us.
Another sign that they clearly didn’t expect wheelchair users was that all the internal doors had to be opened for me by two people for me to pass through. No “Press to Open” doors or large light doors with easy to open handles. Just heavy doors that I couldn’t have opened.

Like I said above, the assessment itself went much better than I’d expected – this time they didn’t ask me why I was still alive with my suicidal thoughts, didn’t ask me how I got PTSD and didn’t make me do any unnecessary physical exams (all of which happened at my first PIP assessment). But really I wish the constant assessments would stop and the fear of the next new and exciting way ATOS and the DWP can dehumanise me and threaten to impoverish me could lift.

My ESA is now £19 a week

You’re reading that correctly. The DWP has decided to give me just £19 a week to live off.
Yes, sure I still ge the PIP that I have been living off – but that’s money for my extra disability related expenses. It’s not for living off as I have been made to do since the end of September 2016 until this week – the end of February 2017.
So now I have £19 a week to cover my half of the groceries and the bills and my council tax and and and… So I’ll still have to live off my PIP.

I’m in the Support Group – they finally bothered to tell me (my Work Capacity Assessment was in October) – so I don’t get sanctions. So what’s happened to more than half the money I used to be paid to live from?
What did I do wrong to deserve this?

I GOT A BOYFRIEND AND WE LIVE TOGETHER.

That’s my “crime”. As far as the DWP are concerned, we are married (we’re not), his money is my money and my money is his (it’s not) and his “income” of a student loan plus mine of £19 a week is enough for two adults to live off (it’s not). But even if we were married and we did share finances and his income were enough for two, why should I be paid less when it is still just as impossible for me to work?

I’m in the Support Group. I’m not expected to look for work. I’m not expected to work. I have chronic, lifelong conditions that aren’t really expected to improve and can’t be cured. Employment Support Allowance, despite the name, is basically an income replacement for people like me who are not expected o be able to work for an income while ill – including those of us who might well be ill for the rest of our lives.
To take my only income away because my partner has money is… well I can think of a few words for what it is but I think I’ll go with “wrong”. It is morally wrong to force disabled people to rely on our partners.

IT IS MORALLY WRONG TO FORCE DISABLED PEOPLE TO RELY ON OUR PARTNERS.

My boyfriend is lovely. The DWP don’t know that. They don’t know what will happen to me once they make us so financially unequal that I have to depend on him for living costs. They don’t care: all they know is he has an “income” which is far below minimum wage – if he’d had a full time minimum wage job, we believe they’d have left me with no ESA income at all. They don’t care about making me live out of my PIP. They don’t care about whether he’d decide to spend all his money on himself and none on me and leave me to scrape by – financial abuse and other forms of domestic violence are extremely common in disabled people’s relationships. The DWP have no idea and no desire to get an idea about what this will do to me and him in particular or to disabled people across the country.

£19 doesn’t even buy an MP’s breakfast.
£19 doesn’t cover a taxi to and from the hospital.
£19 a week is my income. That’s £2.70 a day.
That couldn’t even buy me a lunch a day.

And the awful thing is, by the DWP’s own rules this is how the benefits system is supposed to work. This is not a mistake or an error. This is the UK’s “generous” benefits system in action.

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How I am: an Update 

Hello readers,

I’ve missed you and I wonder if you have missed me.

A lot has happened since my last post. There’s no gentle or easy way to say it but my mother died. She had been very ill for a long time and in November 2016 she died. I don’t really want to write about that but it is important to me that you all know.

I did not know it at the time but while I and my family were trying to cope with my mother’s worsening health, her death and her funeral, the DWP had quietly stopped paying my ESA.

In fact, they’d stopped paying my ESA in September. Without telling me. Or giving me any reason why or instructions on how to fix whatever problem they had.

After several phone calls, we found out that we needed to fill in an ESA 3 form. That was before we realised that my payments had stopped. We weren’t told that the payments had been stopped until after we’d completed and returned the form and phoned them to ask if they’d got it.

They said that my payments would be backpayed and paid on the 20th of December. Which was 2 days ago.

I’m yet to be paid or even told in writing why my payments were stopped. All I did “wrong” was move house. I tried to tell the DWP in advance, sending letters to several addresses but none were received apparently. They heard from the local council that I’d moved and then stopped paying me.

They haven’t told me the conclusion of my WCA either.

I’m sure it will all be okay for me because I have a boyfriend who is able to phone them and chase it up until this is sorted.

So, yeah. Dear readers, that is why I’ve been quiet of late.

Another Entry For My “DWP Diary”

Sometimes this blog of mine is just a diary of my interactions with the DWP. I’m even considering going back and tagging such entries “”DWP Diary” for ease of reference.

I got a letter this morning inviting me for a(nother) face-to-face assessment – or Work Capacity Assessment scheduled for three weeks from now. Already I am feeling powerless and scared. I’ve done this before and I know it’ll probably go my way but the potential consequences if it doesn’t are terrifying. If I were to somehow end up in the Work Related Activity group, the results could even be life-threatening. It’s a heck of a huge thing to have to try to keep from thinking about. I got the right award last time. I’ve only got more ill since then. I’ll be being backed up by my boyfriend and by letters showing that I got referred back into long term therapy *partly because my GP and therapist expect my mental health to plummet in response to being reassessed*. Yeah.

I suspect it will all be terrifying and awful and make me very ill… and get the right result because it’s pretty obvious what the result should be.
But nonetheless, the system is set up to put me through this torturous examination of every task I need help with and why and ask me these same questions every couple of years.. quite possibly for the rest of my life.

How can anyone think this is a good idea?

Where’ve I been? Getting ATOS-ed, that’s where

I realise I’ve not written here in about a month, quite possibly the longest pause in my blogging since YetAnotherLefty came into being a little over two years ago. I (perhaps vainly) imagine that my readers have been asking themselves where I am and when I’m going to get round to writing something again and while I don’t really owe you guys anything, I feel an explanation is due.

Quite entirely simply, the explanation is “I got Atos-ed”. Again. And it was humiliating and triggering and awful and it harmed my mental and physical health. Again.

I want to try to go into that and expose what it’s like to claim PIP and/or ESA (the two kinds of social security / benefits payments offered to disabled people in the UK). Every person I’ve described the process to in real life has been horrified. Sometimes I wonder if people just don’t know or just don’t WANT to know how their friends, family, neighbours who are disabled are being treated. I know people don’t want to think that it could happen to them – when the various changes to disability benefits in the UK started, I was CONVINCED that they were not relevant to me or to anyone I knew. I was very, very wrong. The illnesses that cause me constant pain and fatigue had already begun. The disabilities I’d lived with from infancy should have got me DLA/PIP if anyone had thought to apply.

For both PIP (a benefit that most disabled people qualify for and that is for people who can work as well as people who can’t) and ESA (basically a replacement income for those too ill or disabled to *seek employment*) you first have to obtain and fill in a paper form. On that form, you will be presented with lists of tasks and the option to tick that you either can or cannot do those tasks. And then you’re expected to write in minute detail exactly WHY you can’t do the things you can’t do and how much help you need and why you need that help and exactly which symptoms of exactly which condition(s) prevent you from doing the thing. For EVERY. SINGLE. THING that you can’t do. There’s about thirty pages to the form, and four or more tasks on each page, many of which have subheadings.
It’s a lot of writing, especially if this is your first such form. Oh, and the space to write in is tiny and they don’t actually tell you that you need to detail the whys and hows of every last thing you can’t do without help.

And then they make you back everything up with letters from doctors and carers and social workers and anyone with a title regardless of whether or not they’ve ever seen you at home.

And then they usually still insist on a face to face assessment. Which amounts to meeting a stranger who’s been given a Cliff Notes (think literal bullet points) version of what you wrote on the form in the first place and then questions you in detail about all your conditions and all the things you can’t do and precisely WHY you can’t do them, give examples of times you couldn’t do this, what would happen if you didn’t have the help you have, but WHY does X condition mean you can’t do Y task? how come you can do P but not Q?… the form all over again but with another person asking the questions and not especially caring about being sensitive or kind (in my last PIP assessment, I think we spent a whole ten minutes talking about my bowel and bladder problems and at least 20 on “But WHHHY does severe anxiety prevent you from mixing with people and going to new places on your own?”).
And then based on a report about the face-to-face (including, no joke, comments on whether or not you “looked anxious” in the waiting room) your medical evidence and the damn form, a complete stranger who you have never met, who has never observed you in person, decides whether or not you’re disabled/ill enough to be given a small but often life changing sum of money.

And I think readers of this blog are probably vaguely familiar with all of the above. I needed to spell out the background because what upsets me most about this whole charade, what explains why I become hazy and distant and slightly more mentally ill immediately before and a short while after a face-to-face assessment or a frantic couple of weeks writing the damn forms (every three to six months I have to do one or the other as I get both PIP and ESA)… is the effect this has on my (and likely others’) sense of self, my identity.
The forms and the system reduce me to a list of “I can’t x without y help because of p,q,r symptoms of z condition”. I experience my life – and my self – as a series of events caused or explained by my inability to do things. My brain processes experiences as potential examples for the damn forms and assessments. I feel like a fraud if I decide to take the pain and the consequences of doing something I really really ought not to do. I feel guilty about spending money because at any moment a brown envelope and a few strangers could take all my money away. I worry about that one picture of me on Instagram where I appear to be standing unaided with a baby in each arm – I know the reality is that I’m seated on a stool and there are two people just out of shot ready and waiting to take one or both babies from me as soon as the photo is done – I still worry about what it looks like.
The logic of the form – that one should be able to work and if you aren’t you better have a detailed explanation of precisely why – permeates my brain. I over-explain why I can’t or won’t do things to friends and strangers who would happily have accepted “I can’t” as its own reason. My depression latches onto things that I can’t do that someone my age “should” be able to do. I feel ashamed and scared to admit that I am “on benefits” and likely will be for the rest of my life.
On my “good days”, my depression and anxiety still interject to make me question if I even “deserve” to get paid to not-work (because anything even remotely like full time work would seriously harm me) and if my more expensive or frivolous purchases are justified given I don’t “earn” my money. On my bad days, lying in bed, my brain idly writes new paragraphs for the damn forms.
The system for getting these payments leaves me constantly thinking about what I CAN’T do and why. That can’t be good for me but I can’t stop it. A few more years of this and I imagine it will become a permanent subroutine in my brain, figuring out what I can’t do, what help I need, why I need help, how seriously I’d be harmed without help.. a huge portion of my brain forever ruminating on something that doesn’t help *me* at all. When I could be thinking about my writing or learning or having fun or…

So that’s where I’ve been and where I’m at. The DWP are basically inside my head and critiquing my every action. And it hurts.

And yet… until the system is fixed, I still advise disabled friends to consider putting themselves through it. Because the money maybe a modest sum but it’s LIFE-CHANGING. It means I don’t have to worry about affording a meal in a cafe or a takeaway when I can’t figure out all the steps to making my own lunch. It means I can get a taxi if I need to. It means I can pay bus fare for a friend to accompany me to a scary new place. It means I can afford food that isn’t beans. It helps but making it happen hurts. Possibly permanently. It’s a bind and I respect the choices people make about whether or not applying for PIP, ESA or both will be “worth it” for them.

Benefits Update

A full 16 months after I applied for ESA, I’ve finally got an answer. I’ve been put in the Support Group which basically means that I don’t have to work or seek work because I am too ill and disabled to be reasonably expected to try to find work that I can feasibly do and employers willing to make the many, many adjustments that would be required to make that work accessible to me. After literal years* of financial insecurity due to disability and ill health (including times when I had no money of my own) I finally have something resembling security – money to replace the employment I cannot be reasonably expected to seek or find until and unless I get much less ill (unlikely to happen as my physical illness is chronic and incurable and my mental illnesses are chronic and not responding all that well to treatment) or society gets MUCH, MUCH less disablist and much, much more inclusive and accessible (more likely to happen but still years away). I view it as somewhat akin to compensation – money to live off in recognition that between my body and the society I live in paid job opportunities for me will be close to non-existent but I still deserve to live a good life.

So, what now?
I’ve bought quite a few things lately that I’ve not been able to afford for a very long time – a mobile phone that actually works, a winter coat, new shoes, a Blue Badge and a Disabled Person’s Railcard. It feels odd both to have these things and to know that I can buy such things without worrying about whether I can also afford to pay my rent. This security is unfamiliar to me, I find myself still acutely aware of when each payment is due to come in and when my rent and direct debits are due to go out.

As I don’t need to look for or get a job, I’ll have a lot of free time. I’ll definitely be blogging and I’ve got some great ideas for posts lined up. I’m trying to get back into reading regularly and I want to write more fiction. In fact, I have the slightly ambitious aim of writing the first draft of a novel this year (I’ve written novels before but not since my teens). I’m also looking for very, very part-time volunteer activities in Manchester feel free to contact me if you’ve got an opening you think I could fill 🙂

In the medium term, I’m on a few NHS waiting lists to hopefully get some treatment for my my mental illnesses. I don’t expect to be “cured” but there’s a lot of scope for improvements in managing my illnesses and maybe even reducing my symptoms. A man can hope, right? Learning how to make a phone call without breaking from fear and panic, for example, would greatly improve my life and it’s a goal that is ambitious but (I hope) achievable.

Even longer term, I want to be a parent. I’m hoping to be on the adoption register as a potential adopter before I’m thirty. In order to get there, I’m going to need a few things I don’t have yet: a permanent home with at least one spare bedroom, more local friends than I have now, possibly a wheelchair and/or a service dog. I’m not hugely sure how to go about getting these things sorted but not having to worry too much about continuing to afford to eat and pay rent frees up a lot of time and energy for planning the little steps to the bigger goals. And I know what my big goal is: to be a good parent to at least one someone who didn’t get a great start in life.

So, that’s where I am. Right now I’m still pretty poor compared to most people but I don’t have to worry too much about it any more cos (for now at least) I know that I will have a regular income and that my rent will be paid. This means I can concentrate on other things. Which is something I’ve not been able to do for a long, long while.

*I’ve been trying to apply for DLA / PIP and ESA since 2011, the present year is 2015.

I write best when I’m hurting…

TW: this post discusses social care, “reablement” services, mental illness including self-harm and suicidal ideation and institutional neglect and abuse of disabled people, particularly of me. Stay safe and don’t force yourself to read it if it could harm you.

I sometimes feel I write best when I’m writing about what hurts me. This blog is full of post about my experiences of living with chronic disabling illness and of living in a world that reminds me over and over again that people like me – whether that’s disabled people, trans people, Jews, LGB people or unemployed people – are not wanted or welcome. I write about what hurts me.

I’m hurting right now and haven’t posted in almost a month. What’s happened?

I am being harmed. I am being abused. I am being… “re-abled” by social services. And they’ve decided i don’t qualify for on-going care. That means my care hours, as of tonight, will be cut to ZERO and any care I need I will have to organize and pay for myself – if I survive long enough to sort something out. (My friends and partners are not going to let me die so don’t worry too hard but I basically cannot be safely left alone for more than three DAYS without completely giving up on caring for and feeding myself. An otherwise identical person with no local friends would be dead or hospitalised within a month with malnutrition. I really wish I were exaggerating here).

For the majority of people who’ve never heard of it or had to go through it, “reablement” is an up-to-six-week long assessment period in which care is provided to a person and (in theory) they are given the equipment and support they need to look after themself. On paper, it looks like sort-of a good idea BUT in reality, huge funding cuts mean people aren’t being given as much equipment as they need, are fighting hard and waiting weeks to see that equipment and are being assessed as needing (as I do) about 5 to 6 hours of care a week THAT THE COUNCIL THEN REFUSES TO PROVIDE OR PAY FOR. And even if all the equipment I could benefit from were provided to me, even if I were given my five hours a week ongoing care to keep me alive… the process of reablement is still neglectful and abusive BY DESIGN.

The people sent to support me were deliberately and secretly instructed NOT to help me and to push me to do things by myself. My every morning wash and evening meal was secretly turned into a battle of wills between me, an exhausted mentally ill person in a lot of pain and a carer / support worker who was often meeting me for the first or second time. They pushed me further than I should safely be pushed and they pushed me every day. And I capitulated and forced my pain-filled exhausted limbs past my limits daily *because when I am scared or upset, my PTSD makes me extremely compliant*. I repeatedly tried to explain to both carers and my assessor that I am exhausted and in pain and vulnerable and that whilst I often physically *can* make myself a meal, I usually really, really *ought not to do*. I tried. My concerns were frequently ignored and now I have no care, not all of the equipment I was promised and a fight on my hands to stay in an abusive system in the hopes of getting less than a MP’s meal allowance a day spent on keeping me alive and healthy enough to do anything at all beyond surviving.

My depression and PTSD have been getting very bad lately and is it any wonder? I’ve been seen by carers and by my assessor in tears and self-harming. I’ve had to get friends to help me in the last few weeks because several times a day I think in all seriousness “I want to die just so all this stress and abuse will end”. Things are literally that bad but for the sake of a few quid the council would apparently prefer to let me try to look after myself alone.

And it all links back to the questions on the PIP and ESA forms that apeear in my letter box at irregular intervals and the number of different GPs who’ve happily signed my sick notes yet the DWP still want to get Atos or Capita to assess me in case all 6 GPs were wrong and the comments of the likes of Lord Freud who thinks people like me shouldn’t be paid minimum wage but also shouldn’t be able to live off benefits… it all comes down to having to fight and plead and abase myself daily to show that I deserve to live. It all comes down to narrating over and over and over again how my illnesses and disabilities affect me and how many doctors I’ve seen and getting professionals to write down exactly what I just said on pieces of paper that other professionals may or may not take into account… Will I be deemed worthy, fit for life, this time? And if so, for how long?