‘Fit for work’ tests have normalised the suffering of sick and disabled people

Halfway into a decade of austerity, the biggest threat posed by the Conservatives’ cuts may not be the suffering they are causing mentally ill, sick or disabled people but something altogether more lasting: that their suffering is becoming normalised.

I can think of no other reason why the work capability assessment – the now notorious test used by the Department for Work and Pensions to determine who is eligible for out-of-work sickness benefits and who should be classed as “fit for work” – remains in place.

This is a benefit assessment that has been proven to make people’s conditions worse, and that time after time has been linked to the suicides of people who were declared “fit for work” and had their sickness benefits removed.

It has now been more than 18 months since the mainstream media – including this paper – reported the death of Mark Wood. Despite struggling with multiple mental health problems, the 44-year-old was found “fit for work” in 2013 (Wood’s doctor described him as “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever”). Four months later, he was found dead in his home weighing 5st 8lb.

Any social security system requires a process that can accurately – and humanely – determine who needs out-of-work sickness benefits (and who is physically and mentally fit to be on jobseeker’s allowance, looking for work). This can’t be a test based on suspicion but one that values the opinion of the disabled person and their own doctor, rather than a stranger hired by an outsourced private company. Instead of a crude box-ticking judgment of impairment, any assessment needs to appreciate how someone’s health actually affects their ability to get and keep a job.

What exactly is the DWP waiting for? In a week where more criticism came out in relation to their impact on mental health, my Guardian column looked at the scandal of ‘fit for work’ tests.

Celebrating the hidden history of disabled people’s fight for civil rights

“If you compare it to other groups, like the suffragettes or trade unionists, how disabled people gained their civil rights has really been a hidden history,” says Chris Burgess, curator of exhibitions and collections at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

But that’s all about to change. The disability charity Scope has collaborated with the museum to collect and preserve archives that chart the fight by disabled people for their rights as citizens – from iconic images of activism, posters, banners, campaign badges, t-shirts to personal memoirs. The People’s History Museum is showcasing the archives alongside original artwork, stories and poems by disabled artists and activists from across the country in a special exhibition.

Burgess says it aims to tell the story of a campaign movement that’s been largely ignored up to now. “If it is covered, it’s often not about people demanding change, it’s about ‘welfare’ or rights being ‘given out’,” he says.

The exhibition also celebrates the Disability Discrimination Act, which this week marks its 20th anniversary, and the activists who made the law a reality. With the passing of the landmark DDA, for the first time in Britain the law provided disabled citizens with access to the workplace (employers were required to make “reasonable adjustments” to work and premises) and, through later amendments, to education and transport.

For disabled people – who, culturally, are routinely perceived as “helpless” or “passive” – it feels particularly important to recognise that anything we gained, we fought for. As the bright red tapestry hanging at the exhibition reads: “Nothing about us without us”.

Looking through the artwork and the collected archives, the sense of disabled people actively battling for our rights is unavoidable: from campaign T-shirts with the slogan Piss on Pity scrawled in pink writing to images of crowds of disabled people marching through the streets of Manchester or outside Whitehall.

Perhaps nothing is more striking than the photographs of the direct action DDA activists undertook: black and white images of disabled people handcuffed to buses, hanging their bodies – proudly, visibly affected by various disabilities – in the road.

This was a matter of not only political, but personal, empowerment. Read the full coverage in The Guardian here.

A disabled woman’s struggle is any woman’s struggle

‘The most pressing issues faced by disabled women are the ones faced by most women, except that when you’re disabled, it adds another layer of discrimination,” says Eleanor Lisney, co-founder of the disabled women’s network, Sisters of Frida.

Lisney helped organise what was the first-ever session on disabled feminism at last weekend’s Feminism in London conference. It may seem trivial, but to Lisney, 56, it is a small, significant victory in a larger battle for disabled women’s recognition. As one of the speakers on a panel where each woman has a disability – and looking out at a room of largely disabled women – I found it hard to ignore how oddly unusual the experience was.

“This is important because feminists can’t continue to ignore disabled women, whether that’s our contributions or barriers in society,” Lisney says. “Too often, we don’t feel included.”

This exclusion feels like it’s not only a matter of failing to listen to disabled women’s voices – but about whether what we say will even be thought to count as feminism. Concerns that are currently at the forefront of disabled activism – whether that’s carers’ allowance or social care cuts – are too often seen as if they have little relevance to women’s equality, but are actually key feminist concerns: control over our bodies, genuine choice, and socio-economic independence.

For The Guardian, I wrote about my weekend at Feminism in London – and why a disabled woman’s struggle is any woman’s struggle.

Evicting a wheelchair user to make way for luxury flats: this is social housing 2015

The story of Mostafa Aliverdipour, a 50-year-old wheelchair user raising his family on an estate in north London, could tell politicians plenty about what has become of the principle of social housing in our capital.

Looking out on rows of boarded-up walls and metal grilles, Aliverdipour and his four children – two grown-up sons and two young daughters – are living out of the shell of what once was Sweets Way: a leafy suburban estate of 142 properties that provided homes for military families and later, social tenants on the edge of north London for the past 40-plus years.

Since February 141 families have been evicted from the estate – each one shipped out to temporary accommodation of poorer quality and higher rent, often out of the borough. Aliverdipour, who damaged his spine while working in an old people’s home three years ago, and his children are the only ones left. For six months they’ve lived in what Aliverdipour’s son Ash describes to me as a “ghost town” – taking shifts so someone is always home if the bailiffs come.

To understand how, in a matter of months, an estate full of playing children can become a ghost town – and what sort of society would force a severely disabled man to stage an occupation of his own home – we need look to two stark failings of politics.

Read the full column for The Guardian here.

Death has become a part of Britain’s benefits system

Go to your local benefits office and desperation can be boiled down to a six-point plan, mounted on pink laminated card. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has assembled written guidance on suicide for its “frontline staff” – a euphemism for workers hired to call people and break it to them that they’ve been rejected for benefits. One section of the guidance – that is to be reported to managers to alert them of “a suicidal intention” – instructs jobcentre staff to find out what the person plans, when it is planned for, and whether “the customer has the means to hand”.

I don’t know at what point social security and a risk of suicide became inevitable partners. Or when government “supporting people” – as the DWP described the guidance this week – began to mean, not helping people build their lives, but checking that they do not want to die.

Death has become a part of Britain’s benefits system. That is not hyperbole but the reality that the stress caused by austerity has led us to. Shredding the safety net – a mix of sanctions, defective “fit for work” tests, and outright cuts to multiple services – has meant that benefit claimants are dying; through suicide, starvation, and even being crushed by a refuse lorry when a 17-week benefit sanction forced a man to scavenge in a bin for food.

For The Guardian, I wrote about the newly released benefit ‘mortality statistics’. Read the full column here.

The five most dangerous myths about sickness and disability benefits

In a major speech, Iain Duncan Smith has called for an “overhaul” of the disability and sickness benefit system.

If you can stand to make your way through the opening paragraphs on how lazy out of work people are, what’s striking about the latest nod to “disability benefit reform” is that Duncan Smith said a couple of things that made sense. For example, employers are sometimes reluctant to employ people with disabilities or that “the poor quality of support” many sick and disabled people receive is a key factor in them not returning to work.

I mean, Duncan Smith should know. Considering he’s been the one overseeing the removal of disabled people’s support for the past five years.

The problem with successfully pointing out some problems is that it means nothing if you adopt counterproductive solutions. Duncan Smith’s latest words may point blame towards the structures (cultural prejudice, difficulties of the labour market, lack of in-work support) but his policies put it firmly back on the individual (people need incentivising to get off sickness benefits).

If Duncan Smith cared about “supporting” people struggling to work due to illness or disability, he wouldn’t sanction, time limit, or directly cut their benefits. Similarly, he wouldn’t annihilate in-work support such as Access to Work.

As it is, the government telling bosses to be more reasonable and understanding to the disabled and chronically ill is like a great white shark advocating vegetarianism. It means more if you don’t currently have blood in your teeth.

As a man with a history of not knowing the difference between fact and “some stuff I made up because it seemed to help at the time”, it worried me to see that the work and pensions secretary seemed to find himself here again.

For New Statesman, I wrote five myths around sickness and disability benefits.

The DWP’s fake information leaflet shows how deep the rot is in the benefit sanctions system

Meet Sarah. Sarah receives Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) as she’s too disabled to be able to hold down a job. As someone in the Work Related Activity Group of ESA, she is required to take steps to “prepare for work”. But after failing to complete a CV, Sarah had her benefits sanctioned. “My benefit is back to normal now,” as she told the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) official leaflet on sanctioning. “I’m really pleased with how my CV looks.”

Except she didn’t. Sarah never spoke to the DWP. Sarah never had her benefits sanctioned. She was never even assessed for Employment and Support Allowance. Because Sarah doesn’t actually exist.

As of this week, we know Sarah’s story – like other so-called case studies on the DWP’s sanctions material – was actually invented by the government. Or as a DWP spokesperson put it, created for “illustrative purposes.”

These “illustrative” cases are distinctively positive about having their benefits taken from them. In fact, “Sarah” is practically grateful for it.

“I didn’t have a good reason for not doing [my CV] and I was told I’d lose some of my payment”, she tells the DWP leaflet next to a photo of “her” smiling. “I decided to complete my CV and told my work coach.”

Now, there are several levels of sinister about that. A government department – notably one responsible for, among others, chronically ill and disabled people – has been caught faking a document in a bid to engender support for one of its policies. A policy that has been receiving substantial criticism from journalists, MPs, and oversight bodies.

Add to that this is not a local council policy issuing small fines for parking offences. This is a nationwide social security policy that has the power to arbitrarily remove the money people need in order to live.

Read my full New Statesman column here.