The case itself I'm kinda "meh" about. We know that it's impossible to create a fraud-free welfare state. The DWP acknowledge that DLA has a fraud rate of 0.5% (see page 8 of this DWP report) so that means that one in every 200 claimants is a fake and this woman was seemingly that one in 200. It's worth noting that DLA has the second lowest fraud rate of all benefits, the only benefit with a lower fraud rate is the old age pension.
It's the news story that bothers me, the implication that if you can exercise that you're not really disabled.
On days when I'm well enough I swim and go to the gym. Exercise is important for everyone because it improves your energy levels, helps you sleep better and the endorphins are excellent for your mental health. And energy, sleep and sanity are all areas in which I have plenty of room for improvement.
But on top of that I have my impairment-related need to exercise. Osteogenesis imperfecta causes poor muscle tone so by default I'm a weakling. The stronger my muscles are the better able they are to compensate for my crappy tendons and ligaments. So stronger muscles means less joint pain. And then there's the fact that my bones already break easily and immobility has been proven to reduce bone density further. So by going to the gym I'm doing the NHS a favour by reducing my likelihood of breaking bones thus saving their resources to treat me.
Surveillance footage released by the DWP showed the mother of two using the treadmill for 55 minutes at the Spindles gym at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel.
She was also seen using the free weights, resistance machines and the swimming pool.
OK, I can't use a treadmill. I can barely walk on a solid floor. I can't walk on moving vehicles like trains, I just fall down. Attempting to use a treadmill would be a fast track ticket to A&E. But I do use free weights, resistance machines and I swim. This story is going to make my fellow gym-goers think I'm a fraud.
There's a mass cultural perception that wheelchair users are all paraplegics. I remember once in my stand up comedy days I crossed my legs in the middle of my set. This prompted a heckler to shout "faker! You moved your legs!" (It was actually a good thing. I took him down so brutally that I got the audience totally on my side and had a great gig.) I can't use any gym machines that involve standing up like a treadmill or those things that emulate the actions of stair climbing or roller-blading; but I can and do use machines that work the legs like a recumbent exercise bike and a rowing machine. It would be very easy for someone to make a mental note of my name by glancing at the hosptial-esque paper wrist band they make you wear in the gym (to prove that your membership covered that session and you're not someone who's just wandered in). Then with my name they could phone the DWP's fraud hotline or The Sun's "shop a scrounger" line and accuse me of being a faker because they saw me peddling an exercise bike.
Then there's swimming. As a teenager I swam a lot. I did briefly make it into the GB Paralympic team (for a week and it all ended in tears). I may no longer have the fitness to swim like the clappers but the skill level still resides so I'm a faster swimmer than your average non-disabled person.
I gave up on public swimming sessions because they're so awful. You get people doing doggy paddle in the fast lane. You get people walking up and down the fast lane. You get men with long arms and no lane etiquette swimming butterfly down the middle of the fast lane with no concern for who they smack around which really isn't a good idea when you've got brittle bones. So I joined a masters team (masters = swimming for over 25s) so I can swim in safety because there's a coach overseeing the session to police the lane etiquette. And being coached has the added bonus that you can't just stand at the end of the pool dawdling, you really get some work done.
The other swimmers in the club all seem to be good people and I'm not worried they'll accuse me of being a fraud to the DWP. But at that leisure centre there are 2 pools next to each other separated by windows. Someone in the public session in the adjacent pool could easily see me swimming, get huffy about the fact that the fat disabled dwarf is faster than they are, follow me out to my car and phone the DWP to say "I think the woman who drives AB34 EFG is a faker." The DWP could then check my reg plate against the DVLA's records and track me down.
Getting the exercise I need to keep my skeleton in the shape it's in and not have it get worse already worries me. This story makes exercise that much more scary. Would the BBC really rather I just sit on the sofa and do nothing on the days when I am well enough to function?
Next year will the DWP be reviewing the entire Paralympic team using the television footage as "evidence" that the athletes are too fit to be disabled?
Edit 4/5/11: My gym-going days may soon be over anyway. I just found out that from July my gym fees as a disabled person using my local authority gym will go up by roughly 2000%. That's neither a typo or hyperbole, I didn't mean 200%, no. The London Borough of Camden are putting gym fees for a disabled person up to just under £10 a month from the previous level of circa £6 a year.