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Work capability assessments are a degrading experience

We cannot allow the DWP to continue dehumanising people with bogus medical assessments, writes CHARLOTTE HUGHES

EVERY Thursday for four years, a group of activists and I have helped and advised people outside Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre.

We hand out food parcels and if we can’t give a person all the help they need, we refer them to local organisations and MPs.

Sometimes I am asked to accompany people to their Work Capability Assessment medicals for their Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims.

A lady that speaks to me at our demonstration every week (who we’ll call Jasmine) had received her appointment for an ESA assessment. I asked her if she had a family member or a friend that could go with her. She said she didn’t.

Knowing how shy she is and that she has been refused access to other local organisations before, I didn’t want her to go into the lion’s den alone. And so I  volunteered to accompany her.

Her anxiety concerning the medical began as soon as the brown envelope was posted through her letterbox. This is understandable because she knows that her quality of life relies totally upon the decision that they make at her assessment.

Many of you may be aware how horrible these so-called “medicals” are. But it’s not just the assessment itself that causes people anxiety. The letter, the journey to the assessment and the buildings where they’re carried out — it seems the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) prefers to work in intimidating buildings — all add to the pressure.

The assessment process often starts before you enter the building. As in the case of the Manchester assessment centre, there are cameras outside watching you arrive and leave.

Upon entering, Jasmine and I were met by two G4S security guards, adding to the overall feeling of oppression and intimidation.

The reception desk was behind a clear plastic window and the staff were quite rude. We weren’t greeted or asked if we are OK — considering they usually deal with sick and disabled people, you’d hope that the staff would show some empathy.

Instead, a clipboard was thrust in our direction through a gap in the plastic. “Fill this in,” the receptionist instructed.

The form was relatively short but purposely complicated. I explained to the receptionist that Jasmine would struggle to fill it in. But I was told that she had to do it anyway. She couldn’t. So I did it and Jasmine signed it.

The building itself is old, shabby and harks back to the 1960s or 1970s. There are lines of chairs in poor condition, one water fountain and basic toilets. Everything is dark wood and shabby carpets long past their best.

The only nice thing about the room is that it has big windows. But the view across the road is of a building estate where upper-class housing is currently being constructed, as if to add further insult to the injury of being here.

Jasmine and I found a spot in a corner at the back of the room; she struggles in crowded spaces and felt more at ease there.

As soon as we sat down, a young man stormed out of his assessment.

He was shouting and angry, which was very understandable. He told the room full of people that he has a mental health illness, that he struggles to cope from day to day.

He had gone into his assessment and was asked to move his arms and legs but was asked nothing about his mental health condition.

He knew that they were going to fail him because his medical assessment wasn’t relevant to his condition.

They saw him and decided that they would fail him, he said. He was probably correct.

He went on to tell everyone in the room to challenge everything, to appeal and to get representation. He was soon escorted out of the building by the security guards.

While waiting, I heard a woman complaining that she had waited for over an hour, had travelled 45 minutes to get there and couldn’t stay any longer because she couldn’t cope anymore. She made another appointment and left.

In front of us, a woman was lying down on a couple of chairs. She was curled up in a ball and was obviously quite distressed.

An 80-year-old woman was wheeled into the room by her carer. I had no idea of her circumstances but there is no way on Earth that a person of her age should have to attend an ESA or PIP assessment.

To the right of us there was a lady clutching hold of her carer, rocking back and forth talking to herself. The carer was furious that her client had to be there and told me it will take her weeks, if not a month, to get over this experience.

Indeed, research conducted by Edinburgh’s Herriot-Watt and Napier Universities found that “for many, [the Work Capability Assessment experience] caused a deterioration in people’s mental health which individuals did not recover from.”

Further down, there was a woman sat with her partner. She looked very nervous and wasn’t talking to anyone. When her name was called, she refused the offer of help from her partner to go into the assessment with her. I really hope that they didn’t fail her but the odds were stacked against her.

Sat at the front, near the reception, a woman was sat silently looking at the ground, bewildered, unsure of why she was there and what was going to happen. She was also on her own.

A lady was sat with her carer to the right of us, asleep. She had to be woken up to attend her assessment.

All of these people were clearly too ill to attend these so-called “medicals.” They clearly shouldn’t have had to to be there.

Their consultant’s or doctor’s assessment and diagnoses of their conditions should be enough. It always used to be. After all, doctors know their patients better than anyone else and have the knowledge to help them.

The whole Work Capability Assessment process is designed to purposely humiliate and degrade people, to make them feel unworthy and to question their illness or disability.

Indeed, many people that I speak to who have failed an ESA or PIP medical have told me they are made to feel like they have made their illness up, and that they aren’t entitled to anything. Of course this isn’t true, but the system makes people feel this way.

Most people leaving these assessments must do so under a dark cloud of depression, stress and worry.

As for Jasmine and I, we waited for two hours. She had a panic attack and I had to rearrange the appointment.

This is the reality of this cruel, punishing system, and this is exactly why I and others will continue to fight it.

No-one deserves to be treated like this. The whole DWP system in the form that it exists now makes people suffer intolerably and also kills people. We cannot allow this to continue.


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