Nuala Watt is a Member of Glasgow Meeting. She has an M.Litt in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews and has completed a PhD on the role of partial sight in poetic composition at the University of Glasgow.
I believe that the current government’s disability welfare reforms are wrecking vulnerable people’s psychological firewalls. If you have a serious and/or lifelong condition, you need to develop a psychological firewall. This firewall enables you to filter the painful or humiliating experiences that your condition will inevitably bring. The firewall takes years to develop, but it is an essential piece of psychological kit. It means that when you have to respond politely to someone who asks if you are dying, or where Mummy is, to crawl into a building or ask a relative stranger to dress you, you can do this while retaining your dignity and self-respect. The firewall is not in operation every minute of every day, but you will use it frequently throughout your life. It enables you to cope with your problems while living a full and happy life.
If your firewall becomes damaged, you are in trouble. You will be less able to manage the physical, mental and social challenges that your conditions create. The DWP’s Work Capability Assessments damage disabled people’s firewalls, sometimes irreparably. When you claim Employment and Support Allowance you will be asked when you became unwell and when you expect to get better. There are two problems with this - one you may not be ‘ill’, only disabled. And two, if your condition is lifelong you cannot answer this question, because you don’t know when you’re going to die. Part of having a lifelong condition - even a relatively benign one, is knowing that you will die with it. It will never ever leave you. Under normal conditions you deal with this knowledge by ignoring it. If your firewall is in good condition you can happily get on with your life. To be asked to confirm every twelve weeks that no miracle has occurred is a pointless act of violence.
The ESA50 form, used for Work Capability Assessments, undermines your firewall by systematically facing you with all the things you cannot do and forcing you to concentrate on them exclusively, when all your life you have tried your hardest to do the opposite. If you do not have a mental health problem when you begin the Work Capability Assessment process, you will by the time you get out. Firewalls are the work of a lifetime, but no one’s firewall can survive the WCA process unscathed.
This grievous psychological harm is compounded by the assessment’s failure to acknowledge the nuances of life with a medical condition. The ESA50 form is designed to get people off benefits, not to give an accurate picture of their abilities. It makes no mention of good or bad days, or of the fact that some parts of your brain can work well while others are forever out to lunch. For example the form fails to distinguish adequately between cognitive and neurological problems. I am visually impaired and have severe balance and mobility problems. The decision maker, who had never seen me, decided on the basis of the form that I could safely get away from danger, because I understand the concept. Yes, I know that cars are dangerous. This has no bearing whatsoever on my ability to get away from them. The assessment operates according to a willfully inaccurate logic that has very little respect for reality. This explains why a number of people who are terminally ill have been passed fit for work.
I believe that the Work Capability Assessment process is in direct contravention of the Quaker testimonies to peace, equality and truth. I am working for a two-stream disability benefit system, in which the lifelong nature of some conditions is acknowledged. Only people who have a chance of getting better should be asked whether this has occurred. Anything else is a waste of time and money, and a gratuitous attack on people who are dealing with a difficult situation as best they can. I am also campaigning for a more nuanced assessment process that is flexible enough to take account of the realties of individual people’s lives. I am not saying that disabled people should not work, given appropriate levels of support - I am saying that the benefits system needs to acknowledge the truth of their lives. Not to do so constitutes grievous psychological harm.
If, as Quakers, we believe that all people are children of the Light, we cannot allow this violence to continue. I ask Quakers to campaign for a fairer and more truthful assessment process for those on disability benefits. I also ask them to campaign for a less violent system that leaves disabled people’s psychological firewalls - that is their dignity and self-respect - intact.
We are grateful to Jessica Metheringham, Parliamentary Engagement Officer for Quakers in Britain, for personally discussing this post with a special advisor at the Department of Work and Pensions.