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THERE has been in recent months an increase in negative stories about those who are disabled and require benefits.
This has coincided with plans proposed by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride regarding the work capability assessment (WCA), including scrapping it completely. This consultation ended on October 30.
One of the changes was around the question in the work capability test about incontinence. Their ideas were to remove the question entirely or amend it so that it is worth fewer points. This question, currently worth nine points, could mean someone getting the benefit or not.
When these proposals were announced there was immediate anger. Not only would these broad-brush cuts put severely disabled applicants in danger of losing this important benefit but it might push then into unsuitable employment without the right support in place. It would also directly affect specific groups of disabled people, such as those with spinal cord injuries (SCI).
For those people who sustain SCI it’s highly likely the control of bladder and bowel will be affected.
Elizabeth, who has had an SCI since 1994 resulting in problems with her mobility, bowel and bladder, thinks it would be “very unfair” if the WCA didn’t take these needs into consideration.
Despite such difficulties, those who sustain SCI often want to back to work as soon as possible, if the right support for them is in place.
We can see the thinking behind these proposed cuts in the consultation where they say: “The world of work has transformed over recent years … Working at home brings new opportunities for disabled people to manage their conditions in a more familiar and accessible environment.”
But does this statement reflect the true picture? Do people with disabilities have the space and adaptations at home to make it a place of work?
Philip would say not. A designer by trade, he is stuck in his parents’ house: “I literally live in my bedroom with a wet room. The kitchen isn’t accessible so I can’t even cook myself a meal. The only advantage is having my accessible bathroom metres away. It’s a priority for my personal care.”
I asked Philip what he would need if he were to work from home: “In my own place I’d have space for work — bigger desk, computer, printer, my own work focus. Living here, I don’t know how I’d manage working at all. I can’t even find the peace sometimes to make a phone call or FaceTime. It’s so frustrating.”
The consultation document later mentions that the world of work has improved for disabled people. Statistics and real-life testimony show this doesn’t match reality with many people reporting trouble finding work that’s accessible to their needs.
For those with SCI in work they often find it a battle to get employers to accommodate their needs. This is what happened when Stella was ready to go back to work. She was shocked at how little thought had been given to her disability, with it taking 10 years, and a lot of perseverance, before her employers finally put in place the basics she required.
“When I complained about the lack of disabled toilet facilities, I was shocked to be told I should go to the toilet before I leave the house! A rail was installed in one of the main toilets but with the associated bowel and bladder problems that come with a spinal cord injury, waiting for others who were using it was not always an option. In 2020, they finally had a disabled toilet put in… 10 years after my injury. My employers now really look after me but the ignorance and lack of understanding in the early days was astounding.”
This consultation places disabled people at risk by using changes in working from home as a reason to cut the “protections” those with serious disabilities currently have within the work capability assessment and put them under more pressure to find work.
Although many people with a spinal cord injury already work, many would struggle to return to full-time work as managing a spinal cord injury is already equivalent to a full-time job, not just because of mobility but also because of the critical need to manage their bowel, bladder and skin.
The lack of access or even disabled toilets in potential workplaces as well as not living in an adapted accommodation are constant battles spinal cord injured people face, even if they are able to work.
Any changes to the work capability assessment should consider each disability and the specific adaptations these would require, rather than one-size-fits all criteria. These proposals will be putting disabled people under more pressure to find work, without having the support they need to do so.
Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist, columnist and author.
Find out more about help and support regarding spinal cord injuries at spinal.co.uk.
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