Monday, 13 February 2012

Magical Thinking and Miracle Cures

The Welfare Reform Bill is back in the House of Lords this week, so Iain Duncan Smith has a comment column in the Independent telling us how we are all wrong and that the WRB is going to make things better not worse. Which is going to be a tough sell to the 700,000 disabled people who will lose Employment and Support Allowance due to time-limiting, the 500,000 disabled people who will lose Disability Living Allowance and the tens of thousands of disabled kids whose families will lose £1500 a year of tax credits (however IDS assures us that £1500 isn’t a significant amount of money, not even to families already below the poverty line). And those are just some of the cuts, the list goes on, and on, and on.

IDS talks a good tale, and he’s extremely proficient at half-hidden appeals to petty-minded jealousy against those forced to rely on benefits (an odd talent for a minister who professes to be guided by Christian principles) but when you look at the actual details of the WRB the loopholes he glosses over start to appear, particularly when you look from the harsh reality of the inside of the benefit system. I worked for 20-odd years doing highly skilled development work in the aerospace industry, so getting me back into work makes sense on multiple levels, but my disability now means that I can't sit at a desk without rapidly ending up in so much pain I can't think straight (and when your work is safety-critical that’s not great). Having been forced out of my job by redundancy, the Department of Work and Pensions eventually admitted  that I'm far too disabled to claim JSA and pushed me onto ESA.

If we look at what the WRB says about ESA, then we find that IDS and his minions, particularly Lord Freud, who famously anointed himself as our national expert on disability employment a couple of weeks after first looking at the issue, would now have you believe that all disabled people receive an automatic miracle cure at the 12 month mark which means we can then compete equally in the jobs market, and therefore won't be disadvantaged by time-limiting ESA to 12 months.

Strangely enough I am 23 years into my disability with no cure, miracle or otherwise, in sight; in fact my doctors specifically ruled one out over a decade ago. The disability isn't going to get better and the cumulative damage to joints is going to carry on building year on year. And I am far more typical of disability's reality than IDS's 12 month miracle cure. A psychiatrist confronted with an expectation of miracle cures would likely label that as magical thinking and there would probably be frowning and tutting and a lot of note-taking; magical thinking is not a good thing, it signifies a loss of touch with reality, and a belief that supernatural forces are manipulating the world around you. Of course when you consider IDS’s frequent claim that he is implementing a Christian benefit policy then the magical thinking and miracle cures start to fit into a wider pattern of thought.

The problem for the rest of us is that we can’t ignore reality in favour of supernatural intervention. The Work Related Activity Group of ESA (which I am in) is supposedly for disabled people who are not currently fit for work but can potentially return to work at some point with appropriate support. That potentially means might, not will, and some point could be decades away, but DWP, at IDS and Freud's behest, is interpreting that as the 12 month miracle cure. More than that, DWP policy fails to acknowledge that there is an enormous range of disability that falls into the gap between someone who just needs a little extra support in WRAG to get straight back into work, and those people whose disabilities are so limiting that they are eligible for the Support Group and not expected to worry about work at all.

Hundreds of thousands of disabled benefit claimants in the WRAG have disabilities which will leave us unable to work over periods of years, if not decades. For most of us the reality is that a disability is for life, not just for Christmas, and there is no magical Medical Model fix to make it all go away with a wave of Lord Freud’s fairy wand, nor is DWP’s beloved Bio-Psycho-Social Model (aka the floggings will continue until you admit you’re better) going to make one jot of difference, unless it is to pressure people into damaging themselves further. No matter what Lord Freud may proclaim in the Lords in the next few days, I and other disabled people in the WRAG are not going to have a miracle cure at 12 months; to make my disability go away you would have to reprogramme the genetics of every cell in my body to correct the faulty connective tissue, and then fix all of the damage caused by nearly 50 years of those ligaments and tendons failing to protect joints, never mind the two distinct and individually disabling spinal injuries. What you see is what you get and that is someone who can't manage a job that involves sitting at a desk, standing or walking around. Find me a job I can do flat on my back (and I have problems even there) and there is a chance I can work, but how many jobs allow for that possibility? And each disabled person will come with their own individual set of limitations and issues.

IDS, Lord Freud, Chris Grayling and Maria Miller proclaim at every opportunity that disabled people could compete in the job market on a level footing with non-disabled people if we really wanted to. The under-the-counter briefings to the tabloid attack-hacks preach that we’re all idle scroungers who have been trapped into a life of idleness for no other reason than the easy availability of benefits. I’m not sure whether that counts as yet more magical thinking, or just plain wishful thinking, because even before the WRB axe the benefit system pays a pittance of what I used to earn and the long term financial implications are frankly terrifying. Getting out of the house once a week, not speaking to anyone from one week to the next, watching the death spiral of two decades worth of savings and pension; not really a life I would choose for myself.

To get a disabled person from WRAG to work involves at least three fundamental steps: first their disability needs to improve to the point that work is feasible, and that is simply not in the control of either DWP or the disabled person; next they need to negotiate the job market, more on that in a moment; and finally their job needs to be adapted to suit their individual needs, more on that too. I’ll be generous and accept that DWP are probably trying to help in the first of those steps, unfortunately their practical understanding of disability appears to be totally lacking (or perhaps driven by the kind of remorseless, fact-agnostic ideology that gave Soviet Five Year Plans a bad name). As so often seems to be the case with DWP, we would probably achieve far more if they would just stop trying to help.

So what is the reality of the job market for disabled people? Can we compete with other, non-disabled, people? IDS says yes, but once again the reality is something different. While I was claiming JSA and before DWP accepted that I really wasn’t fit enough to work, I sent out around 200 job applications. I had two decades worth of cutting edge engineering development experience on prominent multinational projects, and a CV that multiple employment consultants said could not be bettered, and I was registered with all of the appropriate specialist recruitment agencies; so how many interviews did I land? One. And that was from a company specifically looking to cherry-pick people with my skillset being made redundant by my ex-employer and which was working directly with the outsourcing consultants. Even more alarming, interviewers working for a company which made a selling point of its socially responsible employment policies admitted that it had never occurred to them that they might actually get a disabled job applicant. And that one interview is now nearly three years in the past, when the jobs market was in a far better condition than the state it has slid to under the Coalition.

The reality gets worse. In talking to multiple employment consultants, I was told that I should do everything possible to hide my disability from prospective employers, because I would be discriminated against. Not might, would. Nearly twenty years after the Disability Discrimination Act required employers to ensure disabled people are able to work and compete for jobs on an equal footing, with the new Equality Act making it illegal to even consider disability in a recruitment decision, people who had spent years as recruitment professionals were telling me that discrimination against disabled job applicants was so universal I needed to hide who I was in order to have any hope of making it past the first cut. One employers’ group proclaimed it a triumph for equality that slightly more than one employer in four would consider employing a disabled person. Meanwhile the other seventy-odd percent of employers surveyed openly acknowledged their intent to flout the law, confident in being able to do that because the government does not enforce disability equality law, that is left to the disabled victims themselves, who overwhelmingly have neither the health, wealth nor legal background to be able to challenge the offenders. The disablist attitudes of employers represent perhaps the single most fundamental barrier to moving large numbers of disabled people into work, and also a barrier open to being dealt with by action from central government, yet the silence from DWP, and from IDS’s ministerial team, is deafening.

Even if you get through to the interview stage, the moment an employer looks at a disabled potential employee and imagines that they may need to fund access changes, specialist seating, telecoms, whatever they might need to actually do the job, the potential for the disabled person to be surreptitiously dumped as ‘too costly’ raises its ugly head. Extra costs are actually minimal in most cases and the DWP’s Access to Work scheme was designed to take care of the non-minimal cases, funding a range of equipment and services for employer (seats, telecoms, access changes etc.), or employee (P.A.s, taxis etc.). AtW was unique, it was a benefit that actually turned a profit for the government, with the Treasury receiving about £1.48 in income tax etc. for every pound AtW spent. Before the election there was even talk of tweaking how AtW worked so that someone like me could arrive for interview at a potential employer and tell them that a package of extra support to cover little stuff like only being able to work while lying flat was already arranged. So of course when the Coalition took power, with their absolute focus on pushing as many disabled people as possible back into the workforce, they promptly slashed AtW’s budget and the range of items covered, leading to a marked drop in the number of people being helped and meaning that many disabled people will now present potential employers with a distinct capital cost for selecting them over a non-disabled candidate. Thanks, IDS!

IDS goes for the grand exit in his article by proclaiming we must restore fairness to the claimant through making work pay and fairness to the taxpayer by ensuring money isn't wasted on trapping people on benefits. But again we see him descending into magical thinking (the alternative would be to accuse him of trying to sell the big lie). I am not trapped by the benefit system, it pays a pittance of what I used to earn; I am trapped by three things: the discriminatory attitudes of employers, the hamstringing of Access to Work, and, ultimately and unavoidably, by the reality of my disability. IDS can ignore that reality, pretend it doesn’t exist, but are magical thinking and miracle cures really a sound basis for government policy?


  1. Great Post David, Was an engineer myself got poorly work didnt care recruitment agencies dont want me like you told to hide disability.pissed off not just with disability but about how employers see us

  2. Great article David. Is there any chance you could persuade the Guardian to publish something like this as a comment piece?

  3. A very accurate portrayal ! If only we can get the politicians to listen.

  4. Very well put. Now If only they would listen. :(

  5. I'm glad you wrote this, I think we have to continue the magical thinking discourse.

    If we could continue the metaphor of a banker/deal maker constructing legislation that was, in reality, the professional realm of a sociologist.

    Visions of an altered reality formed whilst blundering around on banking projects, bolstered by the fame of ancestors.

    Secretly, I find magical thinking fun, but not when you are using it to determine the outcome of other people's lives!

    1. I think there is mileage to be made with the magical thinking line (which is of course why I wrote the piece), the Welfare Reform Bill only makes sense as a mechanism to get disabled people into work if you ignore the reality of disability, and the reality of the workplace enviroment, and the reality of the recruitment environment - people are being asked to ignore three fundamental issues before breakfast, and that only works because of the general level of ignorance about disability. We desperately need more people like Tanni Grey-Thomson, spreading the word that the reality of disability is not what Lord Freud and IDS would have them believe, but it's an uphill struggle against a bought press.

      The other question that arises out of magical thinking, is whether the Tories really believe in their own line and are just so damned incompetent/ideologically blinkered that they truly believe we are all lazy proles who need a touch of the rhino-whip to get us to work, or whether the whole thing is just a cynical construct to hide the fact they're gutting the welfare state.

  6. When I was still working in academic research I was shocked to discover I was the ONLY disabled person they had ever had.

    When I tried to go to conferences I often couldn't go because there were no disabled facilities and was faced with an interested "ooh, we've never had a disabled person before". What worried me more was that these places didn't just cater for my particular specialist subject but for most academic subjects as well as high flying industry businesses.

    Applying for research funding was stacked against me as I had to factor in extra costs due to my disability (for instance the cost of an extra room for my carer for every conference I would attend, extra travel etc). I wasn't allowed to discount it or explain that Access to Work might pay for it. Given that cost was taken into account when awarding research grants, it was soon clear to me that there was institutional disablism in the system. When I pointed this out, the reply was that "ooh, we haven't come across this before".

    I also discovered that I wasn't "allowed" to go to some conferences as the university insurance wouldn't cover me as it would other employees. Secondly I couldn't go on long exchange programs with overseas universities to further my research as I would lose both my DLA and my social services care package.

    There were further problems within the university itself, but those are more specific to the institution so I won't go into them here. However I would not be surprised if they were to crop up elsewhere.

    Academic research was pretty much the only job I could do given my disabilities (yes, a job I could do lying flat on my back in bed!). And yet the obstacles thrown in my path were still huge. I bet IDS doesn't have a clue.

    1. Spoonydoc raises a good point. Even in areas where the focuse is intellectual rather than physical, disabled people are fundamentally under-represented and often restricted even if present.

      In looking back at the people I dealt with at the cutting edge of aviation development, they were rather remorselessly able-bodied. There were six thousand people on site when I started and turnover was quite high, yet in 20 years there I think I saw precisely two wheelchair users and two people using crutches (and I was one of those - and even then I had major issues with management over using crutches). Obviously there would be people with invisible disabilities, but the disability demographics within a company that proclaimed its equality policies at every opportunity in no way reflected the world outside the factory gates.

      As Spoonydoc says, IDS doesn't have a clue.

  7. Lords' debate continues, I can't bear to watch, but will later and in Hansard.

    We need to explore every avenue of appeal we have with a politicised ministry whose executve arm and contractors will happily "interpret" the Rules as they go about their business.

  8. And now we hear that sick/disabled will have to work for people like tescos etc for an unlimited time OR face sanctions....even now there are so called jobs advertised in some job centers for night shift workers at said establishment pay will be jsa plus expenses and they are adveryised as PERMANENT so here we are bingo ...slave labour in a shrinking jobs market....HOW did we miss this in the hated wrb bill......