The letters to the Guardian reacting to its latest article discussing problems within the administration of the Work Capability Assessment by ATOS Origin have drawn an interesting, if rather odious, response.
The powerful article by John Harris can be read here and is a reaction to the new report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions (see here), but steps beyond the report to look at a string of examples of malpractice, and wonder how all this can be happen while the general population remain blissfully unaware.
And now today we see a response from Geraldine O'Connell, National Secretary of Prospect, the 'union' for ATOS Health Care Professionals (the doctors, nurses and physios who administer the test). Does she join in the horror at what is happening? I'll let you make your own minds up:
John Harris's article makes compelling and disturbing reading. But there are always two sides to a story.
Having introduced herself she goes on to explain:
Recent media interest on the experiences of claimants during the migration of incapacity benefit to employment support allowance has left heath care workers feeling bruised and demoralised
I'm sorry? Several disabled people are dead, dozens, if
not hundreds or even thousands have been reduced to contemplating suicide, tens
of thousands more have been forced through the stress of appeals (and left
without the benefits they depend on for months, even years), the Tribunal
Service is creaking under the strain of dealing with all of the foul-ups
created by ATOS Origin HCPs (at a cost to the country of £50m), while
thousands upon thousands of disabled people (including me) have been
treated with utter contempt by her members, and she wants us to feel sorry for
them? What kind of twisted mirror-world does she inhabit to think that her
members are the sinned against?
She goes on to state:
Prospect fully supports the absolute requirement for all claimants to be treated with dignity and respect.
But gives no indication of how she proposes to ensure that
is the case, because it certainly isn't the way her members are behaving now.
Then follows the big justification:
The criteria for qualification for benefit are determined through government policy and not by Atos.
Or in other words 'we were only following orders', and
that's a defence that works really well, isn't it?
And for her grand exit she goes for the Big Lie:
health care professionals do not make any decisions on claims themselves
Yet Professor Malcolm Harrington made clear in his review of the WCA, as Geraldine O'Connell must be well aware, that the DWP 'decison makers' are institutionally incapable of overriding the ATOS HCPs due to an overdose of Doctor As God syndrome, meaning that every conclusion by an HCP is in near certainty a decision on a claim.
I'd like to congratulate Geraldine O'Connell on her
letter, I didn't think that it was possible for my opinion of
ATOS HCPs to sink lower, but her breathtaking arrogance in trying to claim
that her members are the sinned against means that she has achieved it. If she
really wants the sympathy of the public, then isn't it time the members of her
organisation remember the oath they swore to do no harm, and the basic humanity
that demands that they ensure that every WCA assessment takes place in
such a way that the claimant understands what is being scored by every question
asked of them, how their answers will be interpreted, that sits, and listens,
and asks about things like repeatability and limitations they might not have
thought to mention, and beyond all else, treats the person on the other side of
their monitor screen as fully their equal, and a person in need of, and fully
entitled to, their help. Anything less is a failure in their duty of care, and
a violation of their oath.
And perhaps when her members have done that, then they will be worthy to ask the forgiveness of the disabled people they have abused.
I've finally been able to face dealing with ATOS again and we had a second try at a WCA on Thursday, this time with them having assured me that there would be an adjustable seat available. Now to give them their due, as soon as I signed in the receptionist produced an adjustable office chair and took it through into the waiting area for me. Unfortunately it didn't make a lot of difference, I couldn't raise it high enough to get a comfortable sitting position (and I'm not exactly tall), and while the back adjusted, the seat, which is the only hope of a comfortable position if I can't get it high enough, didn't. So yet again I ended up sitting turned onto the side of my right hip, with my left leg stuck out straight, in pain and growing rapidly worse.
I'd deliberately arrived with less than five minutes before my appointment to limit the waiting time, 45 minutes later they called me through....
I was seen by a rather elderly doctor who seemed reasonably on top of his brief, but ever so slightly tatty in his appearance, which doesn't impress.
I wasn't impressed by the assessment, either; scripted assessments are all very well if you want a consistent approach, but, because disability is individual rather than consistent, what you're going to end up with is consistently inadequate. The doctor really didn't like the fact that I insisted on qualifying everything I said. Tough, if your questions don't fit my situation I'm going to tell you so.
I made a point of telling him I was unable to get a remotely comfortable position in the chair (which the receptionist had brought through) and I had to repeatedly change position, ultimately reaching the point that I just couldn't bear to sit at all. He had to ask several times if I was able to continue, and we conducted the rest of the assessment with me swapping back and forth between standing with crutches and perched against the edge of the examination bed, I think he may have gotten the message that I really do have quite extreme problems with sitting.
He really seemed quite put out when he asked me to sit on the bed and wanted to do the hammer tap thing on my knees. Get my pain levels high enough and my left leg will spontaneously refuse to bend, which it did. What exactly is the point of complaining to the patient if their disability doesn't allow them to do something? I'm not doing it to spite you, this is the way my disability works.
By the time we finished I was visibly shaking and couldn't put my left foot down at all. It's only a five minute drive from their office to my home, yet I had to seriously consider pulling over on the way home, my pain levels were that high and didn't fade until I'd spent a couple of hours in bed, the first half physically shaking. The pain levels probably mean I wasn't as effective at answering their questions as I could have been, but hopefully the visibility of my reactions will have mostly countered that. Of course, this being ATOS, the end result is anyone's guess, but as far as I'm concerned they managed to make me demonstrate exactly why I meet the ESA criteria, I just wish that they hadn't.
(And just to make a painful experience almost completely pointless, the government announced as part of the spending review that I'll only be entitled to ESA for 12 months, as opposed to indefinitely -- 8 months down...)
Of course that presumes the rest of the universe is willing to let me. I'd been asleep for barely a couple of hours on Thursday morning when the physiotherapy department rang to arrange the physio I'm scheduled for on my shoulder. That was good news, I suppose, I've been waiting a month and a half for the appointment, but couldn't they have rung in the afternoon? (I'd been reduced to strapping my arm up and putting a collar on to get any sleep at all, so the picture of my trying to answer the phone one handed in the dark -- blackout curtains -- while half-awake was probably pretty amusing, for values of amusing that include not being me).
Last night was much the same, I finally drifted off to sleep at about 6AM, secure in the knowledge that I would be safe from interruptions on a Sunday.
Was I hell! 11AM the phone rings, it sounds like a teenager working a weekend job, but I can't ignore her because she says she is from ATOS, ringing to arrange my new WCA assessment for ESA (Employment Support Allowance is the replacement for Incapacity Benefit, the UK's disability benefit, the Work Capability Assessment is the test of whether you qualify and ATOS are the company of ill-repute to whom the testing has been outsourced. My last encounter with them went less than well).
At that point I might just have managed 5 hours sleep, so I was less than appreciative, but I have to go to the interview. After the disaster of my last WCA I made sure to point out that I absolutely needed them to have an adjustable chair available for me. I now don't just suspect that their seating might be capable of throwing me into a major flare-up, I know it for a fact. The girl on the other end told me to hold on while she went and informed their medical side about that. She was back a couple of minutes later sounding awfully like she hadn't found anyone else in the office on a Sunday (surprise, that!) and telling me "I don't know much about that area, but I'm sure they'll contact you about it".
Colour me less than convinced.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and try and have a nap....
As a disabled person I'm unfortunately well used to the environment failing to cater for me, which is why in the Social Model of Disability we define disability as the discrimination we face from the failure of society to provide us with equality of outcome.
Yesterday was the General Election here in the UK and unfortunately I found myself facing not one but two major access fails in a single day.
Taking the election first, the press have been focused on voters having the doors slammed in their faces at 10PM, which is rightly a scandal, but this is far from the only problem people, and particularly disabled people, have faced voting. If we look at my experience then the problems started the moment the polling card dropped through the letter box.
The Polling Card: as in the past it wasn't clear on the map where in the sprawling local comprehensive school you need to go, usually made doubly worse in reality by a hedge hiding the door that is the access. The new problem was that the polling station wasn't actually there any more.... They have moved it to the infant school a couple of hundred yards down the road on the opposite side, but not updated the map. The confusion wasn't helped by both schools being 'St Johns'
The Location: at the top of a large, steep hill, not exactly ideal for anyone with mobility issues. (Particularly as there is a larger junior school with on-site parking at the bottom of the hill, and a large church, also with on-site parking and ISTR a hall right next to that).
The Parking: no disabled parking bays whatsoever, nor any on-site parking. It's all resident on-street bay parking in the vicinity, so there's no hope of anything available post-6PM and it was getting seriously iffy post-3PM when I voted. The closest I could park was about 100 metres away and just getting to the polling station and back left me shaking in pain.
The Signage: Very poor, One large 'Polling station sign (apparently taped together out of sheets of A4 paper), but for pointing you to the appropriate, and very unobvious, gate to get inside they were using unbacked paper strips about 10cm by 75cm taped to iron railings, so that the ends (with the arrows!) had curled around the railings.
The Site: a small, Victorian-style primary school. The entrance was sloped somewhere betwee 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 in rough-poured concrete, and roughly vee-shaped down that slope -- not a flat surface in site. Not exactly great. The relevant entrance to the polling station could have been much better sign-posted, there were at least three different doors in sight and it took me 30 seconds to figure out which was relevant. How someone with a visual impairment was meant to find their way I have no idea. The corridor through to the room in use could have been much better lighted. There was a portable ramp at the entrance to the polling room, which I tripped over - not because I missed it in the lighting, but because it was about 32" wide with 4" lips at the side, while I stand about 36" wide from crutch to crutch.... I don't use any of the legally required access provisions for completing the poll form myself, but I had a general check around for the required facilities. At first glance I couldn't spot the low-level, wheelchair accessible booth, but I think that was just because someone (non-disabled) was using it; the template for VI voters wasn't apparent, but may have been hidden under a desk somewhere, but more worrying WRT that there are multiple reports already of VI voters finding polling officers who had no idea what the template was for nor how to use it, having had absolutely no briefing on access issues. If I had needed to sit then there were no seats ready, though a few were pushed under tables that had been shoved to the side. Overall I think the new polling site is worse than the old one, and the old one wasn't good enough to start with.
Now I got to vote, at the cost of a significant amount of pain, but how many disabled people faced similar obstacles and found them insurmountable? If I wasn't a driver I couldn't have made it to the polling station, never mind the difficulties I faced inside and getting from car to door. I've talked to the staff in the past, and they genuinely have no idea of the issues disabled people face, or even how to show them common courtesy -- one online friend reports being fairly comprehensively patronised yesterday. Beyond the physical issues there is obviously a general failure in training. Some people might think that if disabled people find accessing the polling station difficult then we should use postal votes instead, but that misses the whole point of democracy and equality, we should all be able to access an equivalent and identical voting experience.
So what can we do? Blog about it, obviously, but you can complain (and I plan to): to council officers, councillors and press, in the most egregious cases to the Electoral Commission, and you can log your voting experience at Scope's Polls Apart website and hope that we can bring enough pressure to bear that they will do better next time.
Moving on to the second major access fail of the day....
After December's farrago with Flexible New Deal -- yet another epic access fail which I talked about here -- the Job Centre decided that Job Seekers Allowance couldn't begin to cope with the limitations my disability imposed on my job search and that I would be better off on Employment and Support Allowance (the replacement for Incapacity Benefit). As a result of this I have been working my way through the ESA hoops since late January.
Today's hoop: ESA medical assessment, looking into the work-limiting elements of my disability, of which the major one is that I can't sit without escalating pain (and we're talking sharpened stakes being hammered into places best not elaborated on, not some minor discomfort). Not something I was looking forward to, the government has outsourced the process to ATOS-Origin, whose reputation precedes them, and it isn't a reputation to be proud of.
After voting I had to head home, sort out the papers they needed and head off; luckily the Assessment Centre is local. There's no disabled parking on site (hmm, bit of an oversight there for a site focused on disabled clients), but fortunately the local disabled parking is just a touch over 100m away and at 6PM I could find a space -- not something guaranteed any time between 8AM and 5:30PM. I signed in and was waved through into the waiting room. That had about a dozen chairs, not plastic bucket seats, but not much of a step up from them. None of them had any adjustment, only two of them had arms, the nearest of which I grabbed. After a minute I was already getting hypersensitivity (and that hurts), after two I couldn't sit flat on the chair anymore and I had to roll sideways so I was sitting on the outside of my hip with legs stuck out sideways and generally curled up in pain. By the time we got toward 10 minutes I was physically shaking and realised that there was no way I could sit on a similar chair any longer, so if they had similar chairs in the consultation room then they were going to have to go and find something better.
At that point I was called through. And it turned out that they didn't have the same seats in the consultation room, they were actually worse! Three chairs, no adjustment, no arms, the cheapest style of upholstery.
I didn't even sit down, I just propped myself against the examination couch and told the guy (who never introduced himself) that I need an adjustable seat if we're going to go through with this.
His answer was that that was all they have and that if I need an adjustable seat then they'll have to reschedule.
They have dragged me down there, I am shaking in pain because of it and they can't begin to offer me the most basic accommodation for my disability. It is fair to say I lost my temper, but I kept the criticism to the company rather than the staff, pointing out that amongst other things they had failed to meet the DDA's requirement that they make reasonable adjustments, and were expected to have thought about the needs of their clientele in advance in making those reasonable adjustments. The guy I was seeing said that they had raised the seats issue themselves and had been told to make do with what they had and that he would back my complaint.
So they bring me a complaints form and point to where I should write my complaint. Hello? Disabled person here! Amongst other things I can't write comfortably (or legibly).
And what makes it worse....
When I filled out the ESA medical form that is a preliminary to the assessment (by stapling a page or more of typescript to every page of the 28 page form), what was the last thing I wrote: "I have major problems with seating, if any extended wait is likely then ideally I need a chair adjustable in both height and seat angle."
Not exactly an unexpected requirement then....
It seems ATOS' reputation is fully justified.