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Disability benefits: ‘Why are we made to feel like criminals?’

This article is over 14 years, 1 months old
Last month Gordon Brown unveiled plans to make claiming disability benefits even harder. Pam Burrett told Sadie Robinson about her battle to "prove" she can’t work
Issue 2082
Pam Burrett on a mobility scooter
Pam Burrett on a mobility scooter

Having a disability changed my way of life. I used to work as a community artist, teaching art to groups of children in schools or in schemes run by the council, but I had to give all that up when I developed osteoarthritis in my spine.

The condition triggers off a nervous reaction in my leg called acute sciatica. It means that I’m in constant pain and that much of the time I can hardly walk.

I applied for disability living allowance (DLA) in March this year. My initial application was refused and it took two appeals and a tribunal before I finally got it in November.

In all that time I had to endure severe financial hardship in addition to my disability.

The whole disability benefits system seems to be designed in order not to help you, but to prove that you are not eligible.

The process makes you feel like a prisoner being put on trial. All the way I was asked to give “further evidence” of my disability.

A doctor came and examined me after my first appeal. It was totally intimidating and he made me so nervous that I ended up making a real effort and coming across quite articulately. But because of that he thought I’d proved to him that I was capable of working, and, as a result, he wrote an inaccurate report about me.

My final tribunal was nerve wracking. It was like a court of law, with a lawyer presiding over the meeting, and a doctor and a care worker were there as well. But these people weren’t there to help me – they were there to try and prove I was ineligible!

The criteria for being granted DLA is being unable to walk over 20 yards and at my tribunal they accepted that I can’t do that. The panel said that I am entitled to the benefit.

But it took so much time and effort to get DLA. I had eight months of literally living on the breadline, having to sell my furniture, get bank loans and borrow money from friends.

And because I owe so much, it seems that now all my money is spent clearing debts. While waiting for my benefit decision I couldn’t pay my gas, electric or water so now they have to be paid, or I will get cut off.

There are some real advantages to receiving DLA. It means that I can get an access bus for free. I can then get to town and rent a mobility scooter which is also free.

I can get on the National Express coach for free and things like that. Also if I can find a carer who can drive me places they will pay their road tax.

But the benefits system does not advertise all this. You have to work really hard to find everything out for yourself and it’s mostly by word of mouth.

The way people on disability benefit are portrayed as being alcoholics and obese is disgusting. For some people disability is a catch 22 situation, because both conditions – alcoholism and obesity – come about because of lack of quality of life. They come from the awful situations people are put in because of their disability.

There’s an idea that people on benefits are just lazy. But if people with disabilities can’t find a job that they actually want to do, then there’s a problem with the kind of jobs on offer.

For the vast majority of people having a job and going to work is far more interesting than being isolated at home and scavenging around for your next meal.

However it is true that some people who are disabled could still do something more fulfilling and useful with their lives than they can do at the moment.

In a society where things were organised in a different way this would be possible. But instead people are thrown on the scrapheap with a pittance because they cannot work nine-to-five, five days a week.

The government says that it wants to retrain people – but what are they proposing for us to do? I’m not well every day, so there’s no job that I can do every day.

And who wants to work in a call centre anyway?

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