ATOS, the company who deal with the medical assessments that some claimants of disability benefits have to undergo, have been setting off alarm bells for years. It is frankly incomprehensible to me how this failure of an organisation can still be defended by political parties and entrusted with such an important, sensitive job when it is proving itself time and time again to be completely incompetent, sometimes even immoral. Even broader than the ATOS problem is the awful mismanagement of disability benefits in general. The systems in place are not working. The staff are often unhelpful. The amount of successful appeals says a lot. I will here outline my own personal experiences with ATOS, the DWP and disability benefits.
I am disabled by chronic mental health conditions that greatly affect my quality of life. My partner is effectively my carer, sharing the responsibilities with my parents when I am staying at their home. For a long time I was ignorant about the possibility of applying for financial assistance to aid me and my family with the burden of my health difficulties. In March 2013 I first applied for Disabilty Living Allowance (DLA), a non-means tested benefit allocated based on need. I wasn’t sure if I was eligible but I did fit a lot of the criteria for the low and middle rate care components. The first obstacle of course was the ridiculously long application process. It took me around a week to complete them with the help of my partner. Also bear in mind that we are both university students therefore quite well-educated. How anyone with more severe disabilities than mine, coupled with a lack of familial support and no education could possibly fill out those forms I will never understand. I think it is probably impossible and there are many disabled people missing out purely for this reason.
Anyway, my forms were simply not read properly as my claim was refused on grounds that made no sense whatsoever. For example the letter of reasons included such claims as ‘you do not need y help because you do not suffer from x problem’ when I specifically said in my application (corroborated by my partner) that I do indeed suffer from x problem and therefore require y assistance, with medical letters to back up these claims. So basically whoever dealt with my form did not even read a lot of it. Bearing in mind it also took around two months for me to receive this rejection.
After that I asked the DWP to reconsider their decision as was my right, with my partner ringing up explaining all the errors in the form. Around a fortnight later I got a letter asking if I gave permission for my partner’s request to go ahead despite the person on the other end of the phone not mentioning anything of this nature. I sent it back obviously saying yes – and received a duplicate request letter a further fortnight later. When I rang the DWP they insisted I send that one too. Along with that I had to send a further letter explaining my reasons for asking for the reconsideration even though I’d already told them over the phone but it seems that record was lost.
Around a month later I received a letter apologising for how long it was taking. After that I was told my GP needed to send medical evidence to back up my claims. They did so (around 6 weeks later, but that’s a different issue), and then I got a letter saying apparently they hadn’t provided ENOUGH evidence, so they needed to send me to ATOS for a medical assessment. Bear in mind my first try at the claim I was rejected without any of this purely because someone hadn’t even read my bloody form.
As a person with mental health problems the idea of undergoing a medical assessment at ATOS to determine whether I was ‘really’ disabled or not was extremely stressful – it was making me more ill. The date was set for a further month’s time. My partner was ready to come with me to support me. The day before my assessment I received a letter from ATOS cancelling my appointment because the doctor who was supposed to be assessing me had suddenly had to go on leave. My partner rang them and they said they would arrange another one and I’d hear from them in the post.
A further month or so later – and I got ANOTHER rejection letter from the DWP, despite never actually having my medical assessment. They told me to ring up ATOS, ATOS told me I was now off the system and had to ring DWP again. DWP told me to appeal. I wasn’t able to send off my appeal form in the required time because as you can imagine this was highly stressful, again resulting in me becoming more ill. Eventually the appeal form was sent off. It has been around six weeks since then and I am yet to hear anything from the DWP about my claim. They are supposed to review it again before deciding whether to stick to their rejection or send me off to the appeals tribunal. As you can see regardless of whether I am entitled to DLA they have no right to send me straight to the tribunal as there have been PROCEDURAL errors seeing as I didn’t even have my ATOS medical assessment.
It is November and I first applied for DLA in March. As I say I am still yet to hear about my appeal. The entire process has been simply overwhelming at some points, making me ill and putting a burden on my partner who has had to deal with a lot of it seeing as I haven’t been able to. This system needs to change. So many of us are suffering. ATOS need to be replaced with a state body and the DWP seriously need to rethink the way it trains its staff as well as employing more of them so that we do need wait months and months to hear about our claims. Some people have no income during those times of waiting, how are they supposed to eat? The government are continuing to show their moral bankruptcy by doing nothing to solve these problems affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Note: If you live in the Leicestershire area and any of this stuff concerns you, please come along to an event hosted by Leicester Disabilities Action to commemorate those who have lost their lives as a result of the shoddy disability benefits system. The event is being held on December 7th, 2013 in Leicester city centre (exact location TBC), at 2pm, free entry to everyone. There will be speakers, musicians, and poets performing. If you’re on Facebook the link to the event is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/244529969034420/?ref_dashboard_filter=calendar