Has Access to Work become a bureaucratic monster?

I’ve been picking up lots of chatter recently about Access to Work. Lots of petty new rules suddenly turning up out of nowhere on what communication support can or can’t be booked using Access to Work. Limping Chicken picked up on the trend last year and a recent email from a friend suggests things are getting worse still. This prompts me to tell a story about a little local difficulty I had with Access to Work a few months back. It’s a long story, so get yourself comfortable…

To get the pleasantries out the way, as a policy, Access to Work is great. Can’t live or rather work without it. It provides me with communication support that enables me to attend meetings, speak on the phone and basically do my job. Without that support, I would be severely limited in what work I could do.

So how I do square this with the fact that the people who administer Access to Work are the most petty unhelpful rude obstructive bureaucrats I’ve ever had the displeasure to engage with. The people meant to be helping disabled people into work often seem to be working purposely to make it harder to get the support they need.

My little run in with Access to Work started last summer when I had to renew my claim. The renewals are never enjoyable. They invariably ask lots of random questions like how many meetings I expect to have in the next three years. I don’t even know yet how many meetings I’m going to have next week but anyhow…

This renewal seemed worse than usual. It started off with officials ignoring my renewal claim for 2 months and only getting their act together once my manager started chasing them to find out what was going on. This was all getting me quite nervous since my existing package of support was now due to expire soon.

Things didn’t get better. To cut a long story short, the agreement had to be sent back three times because of errors and rubbish maths. If that was the end of it, then I would not be writing this blog. I suppose that being able to do multiplication on a calculator or know the difference between a sign language interpreter and a speech to text reporter are not totally essential skills for anyone working on Access to Work. But, the worse was still to come.

For reasons unknown, Access to Work apparently required me to split out my renewal into day to day support and one-off support. The one-off support is for funding support that I need to attend party conferences each year which, as a parliamentary officer, is fairly essential for my job. I had naively assumed that the person looking after my claim could deal with both or would at least make it clear how this would be handled. Nope.

When it became clear that the official didn’t seem to be doing anything about the one-off support, I flagged it up. I was told that I needed to talk to the person looking after my claim. Which was puzzling because I thought that’s what she was there to do. I asked if she could let me have the contact details or, better still, forward my email the relevant person.

No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply again. Another email. No reply. After the 4th time trying, I got a rather curt email that finally gave me another email address to try.

I emailed the other person. No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply. You may be able to detect a trend.

By the time I had finally got someone to look at this, the party conferences had been and gone. I had been forced into a position of deciding whether to go to conference and try and get by without communication support or telling my boss I couldn’t do my job or booking the communication support. As Access to Work had funded this kind of support before without question, I went ahead and booked it. I thought I’d be OK. There’s no way Access to Work could reasonably refuse this support, surely?

The claim was turned down. Why? Because I was making a retrospective claim. The fact that they might have had something to do with it being a retrospective claim was not really considered to be a mitigating factor.

Thus began a long complaints process and a million more emails. I tried reasoning with them. No luck. I made a formal complaint. It was not upheld and the reason given, adding insult to injury, was that, as a long-standing user of Access to Work, I should apparently have been aware from the outset that separate renewal claims were needed. Basically it was entirely my own fault.

It was incredibly frustrating. I was having to spend hours working to recover costs that I had reasonably expected would be reimbursed by Access to Work. What made it worse for me was the knowledge that, as I work for a charity, I was using up charitable funds.

I was forced to exhaust the complaints process to the long and bitter end. And only then did I finally get someone to admit that actually Access to Work may have been at fault. And that it wasn’t unreasonable of me to expect that my renewal for one-off support should have been dealt with at the very start. My request for a retrospective claim was finally agreed.

So this story kind of has a happy ending. But I had to fight to get it. I had to deal with curt and obstructive officials. Several times, I pointedly drew attention to the Access to Work customer charter which states that I can expect Access to Work to:

• Have an adviser contact you within 24 hours of getting an application form
• Keep you informed through the process
• Be flexible and responsive
• Be helpful, courteous and professional

I work in campaigns so I know how to write stroppy emails and to navigate a complaints system. Other deaf people, especially young deaf people new to the system, might not be able to or feel confident doing so.

And things now seem to be getting worse with the current trend to new petty and stupid rules coming out of the Department for Work and Pensions on Access to Work, all making it harder for deaf and disabled people to get the support they need.

It’s taken me a few months to write this blog. Partly that’s out of exasperation and frustration that these people actually think it’s acceptable to behave like this with disabled people. I just want to do my job. I am tired of having to fight endless battles with faceless bureaucrats. Even now, after my renewals have been sorted, I still get curt and unhelpful letter from Access to Work querying some issue or another with my claim.

The police were once described as being ‘institutionally racist’. Right now, I feel like Access to Work has turned into a petty bureaucratic monster that’s institutionally hostile to disabled people.

PS If you’re experiencing problems with Access to Work, check out the Deaf AtW website which has lots of helpful information and advice.


Pushing the disability ministry to take disabled access seriously

A minor little campaign victory achieved at NDCS the other week: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) accepted that deaf people should not be forced to use the phone to make a claim for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit. Usually, I do a little jig and get the Bucks Fizz out when a campaign victory has been achieved. But this was a very small, unsettling one and which left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

How come? Because the only real concession is that deaf people have been given a postal address that they can write to to ask for a paper form instead.

And why is it an unsettling one? Because it was such a small issue that should absolutely never have been an issue at all. And because it’s revealed some rather interesting things about how the Department for Work and Pensions, which has responsibility for disability issues across Whitehall, seem to approach issues around access for disabled people.

For example, who at DWP thought it was OK to propose that the only way that a disabled person could make a claim was via a telephone?

If an online system is being created, why not wait until this is developed before rolling out the new benefit so that more people can access?

And, the worse one of all for me, who on earth thought it was acceptable to suggest that if a deaf person couldn’t use the phone, it didn’t matter too much because they could ask a family member to call DWP for them?

Something has gone very horribly wrong when the Minister and officials responsible for disability have to be hectored at some length and for some time to take a tiny step to improve access.

Official were seemingly operating in ignorance of the Equality Act 2010 and its central tenets to remove discrimination and promote access for disabled people. Throughout the whole exchange with DWP, it was abundantly clear that the needs and the convenience of their ‘system’ was far more important than the physical access needs of disabled people.

And this is before we’ve got to the raft of spending and welfare cuts that are going to impact on disabled people (and which the Government refuses to assess the impact of – another legal requirement). This was a small issue. But it said big things about the Government’s wider attitude towards disabled people.

I despair. It makes me angry and depressed. But equally it makes me more determined to keep challenging the Government. And I hope others do too.

P.S. If you’re not sure what this new PIP benefit is all about, both the National Deaf Children’s Society and Action on Hearing Loss have recently produced some information resources on PIP for deaf young people, parents and deaf adults.

Battle lost on welfare cuts for deaf people

The Department for Work and Pensions’ have succeeded in their plans to replace Disability Living Allowance with a new benefit called Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for disabled people over 16. The regulations were debated and voted through by Parliament around a month ago. And now many deaf people will lose out.

A response from the National Deaf Children’s Society is online and sets out their anger and disappointment.

I think what makes me most angry is the way the Government have gone about making this cut without being open about the consequences. Lots of members of the public and a few MPs and peers have raised concerns about the impact of these changes on deaf people. They have all been largely fobbed by the Department for Work and Pensions in several different insidious ways.

For example, the Department have been prone to engage in rhetoric about supporting those “most in need” when asked how deaf people will be affected.

Note the implication that that deafness isn’t that big a deal. If the Department think this, they should come out and say so. They’ve had ample opportunity.

And since when did it become OK for the Department for Work and Pensions to turn disability into some kind of big competition, pitting different groups of disabled people against each other to see who is ‘most’ disabled? I thought the just thing to do was to support everyone who needs help. It’s brazen and shameless divide and rule.

Another example of how the Department have batted away concerns is through refusing to identify how many deaf people will lose out. They say the Department can’t monitor the impact on deaf people. Everyone’s needs need to be looked at individually, they say. I find this curious because the Department can come up with a very specific figure of 608,000 people who will be affected by these changes. That’s 608,000 individuals who have already been judged to not be disabled enough. They can also breakdown figures in terms of who is on different rates of DLA. I rather suspect the Department can work out the differential impact but have made a conscious decision not to do so.

And finally, and probably what annoys me most, is some rather disingenuous use of definitions. For example, the dividing line between those deaf people who will and won’t get PIP is whether they have difficulties understanding basic or complex verbal information without communication support. So if you can’t understand basic information, you qualify. If you can understand basic but not complex you won’t.

When someone says ‘complex’ information, I assume they’re talking about the philosophy of Nietzsche or the budget for the European Commission. In fact, ‘complex’ anything that takes more than a sentence. This isn’t complex information at all – it’s everyday communication. And now deaf people who can understand yes or no but who struggle with everyday communication will lose out. So much for promoting personal independence.

The changes come into force from April. Reassessments for anyone who is currently claiming DLA will start from October – including deaf children who have just turned 16. You can expect a letter in the post. If you currently have a lifetime award, this isn’t going to make a difference, you will still undergo reassessment. In most cases, you will probably be called to a face to face assessment.

It now seems likely that the Department for Work and Pensions will turn their attention to DLA for children. Will the Department attempt to cut support to those children it deems to not disabled enough? If so, they’re going to have a hell of a fight on their hands.

Deaf access fail at the Department for Work and Pensions

Imagine someone telling a wheelchair user that the disabled toilets are just up the stairs. You’d think it bonkers. Well, the Department with overall responsibility on disability policy seem to be on well on their way to pulling a similar trick with deaf people.

There’s been lots of discussions about how the process for claiming the new Personal Independence Payments benefit will work in practice. In a nutshell, you have to make a pre-claim before you’re given a personalised form for your proper claim.

And how do you get a pre-claim form? Easy, you give the benefits team a call and they will do a short interview over the phone. And if you have problems using the phone? No worries, you’ll get a paper form to complete. And how do you get a paper form? You give the benefits team a call.

Frankly, it’s more than just a little disconcerting that the people looking after benefits for disabled people haven’t quite twigged that not every disabled person can use a telephone or have a textphone. So much for the new digital age and for the Government leading by example when it comes to access for disabled people… Am told that Department officials are working on trying to get an online form set up for the new PIP benefit… but it may not be ready in time when the new benefit launches in April next year.

They’d better get a move on. It’s not only just bonkers and ludicrous, but discriminatory.

Is the Government telling deaf people to PIP off on disability benefits?

It took me a while but I finally read through the Department for Work and Pension’s consultation on the eligibility criteria for the new benefits for disabled people, Personal Independence Payments. Otherwise known as PIP. To be fair, there were three, rather long documents, to read through to understand what was being proposed. And I’m still not sure I’ve got it.

For those that don’t know, PIP is the new DLA (Disability Living Allowance), a benefit for disabled people to fund the various additional costs associated with being disabled. Though the Government keep implying otherwise, it’s not linked to employment status. PIP will be introduced from next spring for disabled young people aged 16+. Disabled children have a stay of execution and will remain on DLA for now.

The Government have confirmed that when the move to PIP happens, 500,000 disabled people will lose their PIP. Yup, that’s half a million people who will be worse off. And looking at the guidance, it seems that many deaf people will be among the losers.

This is because in order to get the new “standard” rate of PIP, a deaf person would have to show that they couldn’t understand “basic” information when communicating out and about. Difficulties in understanding anything more than basic information will, on its own, not get you the points you need to qualify. Examples given in the document seem to suggest that only deaf people who communicate entirely and solely in sign language will be eligible for the new PIP. Everyone else, it would seem, nothing.

Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions recently said that deafness was a “moderate” disability. The policy intention is that funding needs to be taken away from deaf people and given to those with more severe disabled needs. This is obviously a rather narrow way to frame political choices. It’s also an approach that treats deaf people as being less “deserving” of support, regardless of any additional support that may be needed to understand more than just “hello” and “bye bye” and which ignores the additional costs and disadvantaged associated with being deaf in a hearing world.

The National Deaf Children’s Society have drafted a short guide on what the changes might mean for deaf young people. This also include some tips and suggestions on how to respond to the consultation. If you think the changes are unfair, I would encourage you to have your say and ask the Government to raise the threshold of support to make sure deaf people get the help they need.