Social Affairs

Work Capability Assessment: a toxic failure for the disabled

Workplace capability
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The main sickness benefit for disabled people is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Eligibility is assessed via the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is a rigid points system, that assesses your ability to carry out very basic tasks. In order to be classified as unfit for work, you need to ‘score’ at least 15 points.

John Hutton laid the groundwork for ESA in 2006 (in the interim he considerably harshened the criteria for Incapacity Benefit).  By 2008, ESA had replaced incapacity benefit for new claims. From the outset, the draconian WCA caused severely ill people to be deemed fit for work. Londoner, Vincent Nestor had incurable stomach cancer, and additionally, he was waiting for a triple heart bypass operation, yet he scored zero points and was declared “fit for work”.

Despite such cases as these Yvette Cooper introduced an even more draconian WCA.  A few days before the 2010 General Election, coroner Tom Osborne, wrote to Cooper, stating that the WCA had caused 43-year-old Stephen Carre to take his life, and the continued programme would lead to further suicides. The incoming coalition Tory-Lib Dem government ignored his concerns.

The WCA exists to deny benefit to as many people as possible.

In theory, it focuses on what people can do, rather than on what they cannot. This enables the DWP to ignore the reality of disability. The WCA assesses deafness by people’s ability to read, and determines blindness by people’s ability to hear.

It omits any reference to bending and kneeling, as apparently this is no longer part of the workplace. Amputees are assessed by their ability to lift empty cardboard boxes with their stumps and most bizarrely of all, WCA assesses mobility problems with an imaginary wheelchair. Consequently, if you can use a wheelchair to whatever they deem a ‘qualifying’ degree, you score zero points for mobility problems.

There are many accomplished wheelchair users (e.g. 11-times gold medal winner Tanni Grey-Thompson), but the reality is, a wheelchair does not equate to a functioning set of legs. There are many problems with using one; the main one being getting your wheelchair and yourself into a car. Other than having a carer or someone to lift the wheelchair into the boot and then help you into your seat, there does not seem to be any other viable solution. Furthermore, in my experience disabled lifts are generally locked; and finding someone to get the key takes up time and energy (or requires a carer). Using a wheelchair can also cause fatigue and pain.

The WCA does not relate to the world of work as it requires people to carry out a very narrow set of tasks such as lifting a 0.5 litre carton or using a pen to make ‘a meaningful mark with either hand’. It goes without saying that the average two-year-olds would be capable of performing these tasks. I was frequently bullied by school teachers over my illegible handwriting, however as I can make a ‘meaningful mark’ (assuming this means a squiggle or adding my name to a birthday card), I would score no points for this.

Criteria for dexterity is ludicrous: someone with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that causes shaking, could score only nine points for dexterity simply because they could push a button with one finger (once). This could ultimately deem them fit for work simply for having the same level of dexterity as a dog.  The threshold for reaching is, ‘Cannot raise either arm as if to put something in the top pocket of a coat or jacket.’  I cannot find any jobs that place emphasis on reaching. Most jobs that involve reaching, tend to involve lifting as well (e.g. shelf-stacking) or co-ordination (e.g. decorating).

It goes without saying none of these ‘skills’ improve a person’s employment prospects. When I did careers advice at school, no-one ever suggested we should list the ability to operate an alarm clock on a CV or job application.

The reality is that in the world of work, people get turned down for jobs if they do not qualify for them. If a person without a medical degree applies to be a doctor, the hospital will not give them the job simply because they can take someone’s pulse.

And I’m pretty sure employers would not overlook the fact I am mostly bed-bound simply because I can pick up a pound coin.


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