Sunday, 24 October 2010

Mary's Story

In my last post I spoke about how, thanks to my particularly fortunate circumstances, I should not be too severely affected by the proposed cuts in the Coalition's Comprehensive Spending Review.

I wrote that in the same frame of mind as a parent might hug their warm, safe, living children after hearing about a fatal school bus accident. It's okay. I'm okay. The bad things happened to someone else. It's terrible, but it was someone else.

That emotion dealt with, it's time to acknowledge that I am not so unaffected as I would like to believe. This is difficult for me to post as it involves hard truths not just about my condition but also my business and my relationship, but Bendygirl's video has persuaded me that it needs to be said.

Hard truth #1 is that I am dependent, physically and financially, on my partner. I contribute to the household in the ways that I can, but ultimately, he's providing for me.

I work, yes. I worked for a company for just over two years and now I've been self-employed for about eight months. I have a growing base of satisfied customers, I pay National Insurance, I will be doing a tax return, and each month, the business expenses are met with a bit left over. Go me!

Unfortunately, much as I hate to admit it, hard truth #2 is that the bit left over isn't a very big bit, and nor were my earnings while I was PAYE. It's always been well under £8,000 per year. I simply can't work very many hours and I'm not in a position to raise my rates.

So the long and short of it is that if my relationship fails, meaning that I am no longer housed and supported by someone else, I will have to wind up the business and seek help from the state until such time as I am able to find employment that pays enough for me to live on without demanding more than I am physically able to give.

A lovely big squishy truth now - my relationship is fine. That's why we're planning a wedding. Excuse me while I cuddle that truth for a little while.

I do feel, though, that part of what makes the relationship fine is that we both know we could leave at any time. I'm not with him just because he can pay the bills. We started our relationship in the knowledge that we can both survive as single adults - we choose to be together, every single day. It's not nice to think of exit strategies, but at least I knew that if something unthinkable happened - for example, if he were to hit me or to announce that he was leaving - I would be able to get a taxi to a friend's house and then start phoning Social Services for support. I would be able to claim money for food on an emergency basis, I would have a few hundred quid in savings to see me through for the first week or so, I would have help to apply for income replacement benefits, and thanks to my DLA status I would have to be put in appropriate accommodation.

This is no longer the case.

The Coalition are aiming to reduce the number of DLA claimants by 20% (600,000 people). That's all very well, but the rate of fraud on that particular benefit is just 0.5% (about 15,000 people), which means that there are 585,000 people who are legitimately claiming, whose conditions have not changed, and yet who are going to get kicked off a benefit which is frankly a lifeline. Believe me when I say the bar is already set quite high for who can and cannot get DLA - it's not awarded for minor illnesses. Remember the official disability facts and figures? There are 11 million disabled people in the UK and yet only 3 million of them get DLA. Long-time readers will remember all the trouble I had with my DLA appeal a couple of years ago. Spending the best part of a year trying to fight the system while also trying to cope without the money. It's not to be had for the asking.

(It should also be reiterated that this shifting of the goalposts purely a cost-cutting exercise. DLA has nothing to do with whether a person works or not. Many DLA claimants are in work and paying tax. In many cases, it is their award of DLA that allows them to buy the care and equipment that enables them to continue working.)

If I were to lose my DLA, it's not just the money that would disappear. All sorts of things go with it - daft stuff you wouldn't necessarily think of, like help getting your water if there's an emergency and your street is put on a standpipe, or eligibility for things like Disabled Person's Railcards.

Let's be positive, though, and assume I keep it. Next, I'd need income replacement benefit. This would be ESA, the benefit that is being phased in to replace the old Incapacity Benefit. ESA divides into two groups. One is for people who are never likely to be able to work - mostly people with terminal illnesses with only a few months left to live. This group get full and unconditional benefit for as long as they are ill (in other words, until they die or a miracle occurs). It's a small group - currently about 6% of claimants. The other group is for those who, with support, would be capable of some work, and their receipt of the benefit is dependent on them fulfilling "work-related activities" such as voluntary placements or work experience placements...

Actually that's not quite true. There's a third group for ESA. The third group is those very definitely disabled people whose conditions don't quite fit the boxes. Those with fluctuating conditions. Those who would be considered capable of "mobilising" fifty metres if they had an appropriate wheelchair, even if they do not in fact have such a wheelchair, nor any way of obtaining one. These people are put onto normal Jobseekers' Allowance with all the hoops and hurdles thereof, and drop out of all disability monitoring at the DWP. No specialist support. No reasonable adjustments. Just sanctions if you do not sign on or if you do not apply for enough jobs.

Assume, then, that I would get either work-related activity ESA, or that I would be discarded onto JSA. Finally, I have to find somewhere to live, and this is where it gets really tricky.

First of all, as a person under 35 I would only be eligible for a room in a shared house. Sharing a house is a tricky prospect for a disabled person. You need the people you live with to be able to understand about your disability. You need them to understand, even when drunk, that your mobility aids and assistive items aren't their toys and that you really do need a proper sleep schedule. You need to be able to get help to fulfil your share of the chores, and Social Services do not provide help with housework for people who live with "able-bodied adults". I wouldn't last five minutes.

Of course, you also might need certain adaptations to the property. That's expensive and I doubt councils will fund much of it. So maybe that would mean not having to enter a house-share because it's not physically appropriate. Which means we're looking at temporary accommodation in (a) a hospital or (b) a hotel with an accessible room. It could happen, but it'd be expensive. Perhaps a better solution would be care homes? I don't require nursing care, but it would be a room, and it would be accessible, and the other people would understand my situation.

Heh. Well, yes. That's a solution. It's already a solution for many people. Live in a care home. They remove all your income replacement benefit, and they remove all of your DLA care component, and then they give you £20 a week of "pocket money" to cover anything that's not basic food and bills. Shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, makeup? Pocket money. Clothes and shoes? Pocket money. A laptop computer to enable you to communicate with the world? Pocket money. These things could be considered luxuries, but would YOU employ someone without them?

DLA mobility component is different. People can use that however they see fit. Some people hand it all over and get a leased Motability adapted vehicle. Some people use it to hire or purchase a mobility scooter. Some people use it to cover the difference between what the NHS will pay for a wheelchair, and the price of a wheelchair they can actually use. Some people pool it with others in their care homes to fund an accessible minibus. Some people keep it and use it for taxi fares so that they can do things like, ooh, go into town and sign on or do Work Related Activity as part of their ESA/JSA requirements.

The Coalition intend to axe DLA mobility component for people in care homes. Adapted cars, taxi fares, and in many cases, wheelchairs, GONE. When challenged, the government said that local authorities should be providing transport and daytime activities for disabled people in care homes. These would be the same local authorities who have been told to reduce their spending by 25%...

So if the Coalition's plans are successful, then for the next seven years at least (until I am 35), my choices are to stay with Steve, or to attempt to bounce on a welfare safety net that will be so small as to be negligible. Can I still honestly say that we live together out of choice, when my best case breakup scenario will be either virtual imprisonment in a care home, or living out of a suitcase in a cheap hotel? Ironically, the additional pressure this puts on my relationship only increases the chance of it turning sour. And since neither of those situations are going to enable me to pick up the threads of my life and move towards getting back into employment, it makes me even more likely to remain benefit-dependent for longer.

I say again, for myself as much as for the people reading this, that my relationship with Steve is stable and loving and going nowhere. In that respect I am more lucky than many disabled people who find themselves increasingly dependent on their partners. But one thing you learn with adulthood-acquired disability is that life can change in an instant - I'm scared that the safety net which caught me once, and which I may rely on to catch me again, is being removed.

Originally posted here.

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