‘Fitness for work’ test under fire: Doctor’s call for action on safety

A GP whose patient tried to kill himself after a “fitness for work” test is urging the government to introduce a way to allow doctors to report such cases to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, says he believes many other GPs have patients who have experienced similar levels of mental distress as a result of being put through the work capability assessment (WCA).

He said that introducing a reporting mechanism – in which GPs could pass details to the DWP – was the only way to build up a picture of the true impact of the WCA.

Disabled activists have been pointing to links between the WCA and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other deaths among those being assessed, but the DWP has so far refused to acknowledge the issue.

Dr Carty, who works in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, spoke out as fellow GPs from across Britain voted unanimously at their annual conference in Liverpool to scrap the tests. They were voting on a motion he had submitted to the annual conference of Scottish GPs in March, which also voted overwhelmingly in favour.

One of his patients, David*, who has bipolar disorder and a heroin addiction, has agreed to his case details being passed to Disability News Service.

Dr Carty had told the DWP last October – as part of David’s DLA claim – that his patient had significant mental health problems, had had a recent heroin relapse and had been suicidal, with an unstable and “very low” mood, and had difficulty dressing, washing and feeding himself.

Dr Carty made it clear to the DWP that he did not think that “the additional burden or threat of withdrawal of benefits would be therapeutic for him, indeed it could be harmful”.

David was subsequently granted DLA for another five years, but was then told that he would be tested as part of the national programme to use the WCA to reassess about 1.5 million people claiming incapacity benefit, and check their eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA).

But the information from his DLA form about the fragile state of his health was not passed to Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the assessments, or to ESA decision-makers in the DWP.

After receiving a letter telling him he would have to attend a WCA on 24 April, David tried to postpone the test because he was so unwell, but was told by Atos that he could only delay it for a week, and if he didn’t attend he could have his benefits halted.

When he attended the WCA, he says the interview was focused on his physical health, and appeared to ignore his mental health condition.

Afterwards, he was so distressed that he bought a large quantity of heroin – two-and-a-half grams – and tried to kill himself with an overdose. He only came round 26 hours later.

As a result of David’s experiences and those of other patients, Dr Carty wants the government to introduce a system in which GPs can alert the DWP to people whose health has been harmed as a result of being assessed.

He said: “I think there should be a reporting mechanism for circumstances such as this and there isn’t.”

He added: “I don’t think there is anything unusual about my experience. Anecdotally, speaking to other GPs, this is the sort of thing that is happening elsewhere.”

The DWP has so far declined to comment.

*Not his real name

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

London 2012 reveals names of first Paralympic torch-bearers

A cheerleader, an athlete and an artist are among the first disabled people chosen to take part in this summer’s Paralympic torch relay.

LOCOG, London 2012’s organising committee, this week announced the names of more than 300 people – both disabled and non-disabled – who have been chosen to carry the Paralympic torch from Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford in August.

Although LOCOG has not yet been able to say how many of those chosen are disabled people, among those picked so far are:

Rick Rodgers, from Orpington, south-east London, a former competitive cheerleader and physical theatre performer who, after becoming disabled in 2008, returned to the sport of competitive cheerleading as part of a unique stunt duo, and also performs with the disability circus arts group Cirque Nova.

Charlotte Cox, from Cambridge, who won four titles in the International Athletic Association for Persons with Down Syndrome championships in Mexico in 2010.

Disabled artist Susan Williams, from Lambeth, south London, who has championed other disabled artists in her work with Arts Council England.

Doctor Jane Atkinson, from Newcastle, who featured in the BBC reality series Beyond Boundaries, and wanted to take part in the relay because the success of Britain’s Paralympians was “a great source of pride for our nation”.

Patricia Marjoram, who is 81 years old, from Little Ellingham, Norfolk, and edits the national magazine of the Society for Disabled Artists, runs a local art group and organises an annual art holiday for disabled people.

Gareth Burton, from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, who has campaigned to improve the accessibility of public facilities, and wanted to take part in the relay to show that “just because I’m in a wheelchair I can do things that others enjoy”.

And Guy Harris, from Crampmoor, Hampshire, who set up DisabledGear.com, a website which allows disabled people to buy and sell second-hand equipment.

In all, 580 disabled and non-disabled “torchbearers” will carry the flame in teams of five, with each team covering about half a mile.

Three London 2012 sponsors – Sainsbury’s, Lloyds TSB and BT – have each chosen about 140 people to take part in the relay from thousands of public nominations, with the other 150 or so to be selected by the International Paralympic Committee, LOCOG, the British Paralympic Association and other London 2012 sponsors.

The aim was to find teams and individuals from across the UK who have demonstrated Paralympic values.

Lord [Sebastian] Coe, LOCOG’s chair, said: “Whether they have been together for years or have been brought together around a common story, they have all demonstrated how they are living the Paralympic values of courage, determination, inspiration and equality.”

Sainsbury’s was criticised last month for using a panel of four non-disabled employees to pick its torch-bearers, a decision described by a leading disabled activist as “patronising” and “disrespectful”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

GP vote set to pressure government over ‘fitness for work’ tests

GPs across Britain look set to call on the government to abandon its much-criticised “fitness for work” tests, giving a huge boost to disabled activists who have fought for them to be scrapped.

The work capability assessment (WCA), which tests disabled people’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits, has been the subject of huge controversy since its introduction in 2008 by the Labour government.

The tests are carried out by healthcare professionals – including doctors – working for Atos Healthcare, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

But GPs are set to vote at their annual conference in Liverpool next week on a motion that calls on the government to scrap the tests.

They will be asked to agree that the “inadequate computer-based assessments” have “little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons”, and should end “with immediate effect” and be replaced with a “rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm” to disabled people.

Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the Scottish-based campaign group Black Triangle, who tabled the motion at the conference, said he hoped a vote in favour would “apply pressure on the government”.

He said: “I want the WCA in its present form to end with immediate effect. There are not sufficient safeguards in the present system to prevent avoidable harm [to disabled claimants].”

Dr Carty, a GP in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, tabled an identical motion at the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) annual conference of Scottish GPs in March, where it was overwhelmingly approved.

If the motion is passed next week, it will become policy of the BMA’s GP committee, which negotiates with the government on behalf of GPs and would be expected to push for the WCA to be scrapped.

Dr Carty said he hoped the committee would “negotiate in the hardest terms” with the DWP over the WCA.

The motion is also set to be debated at the BMA’s annual conference for all doctors, to be held next month. If it was approved at that meeting, the motion would become BMA-wide policy.

A DWP spokesman said: “We clearly don’t agree that the WCA should be scrapped.

“The WCA was developed in close consultation with experts and disability organisations and we are continually working to make sure it is fair and effective.

“That is why we are implementing recommendations made by our independent reviewer, Professor Malcolm Harrington, and want to keep improving the WCA.”

He said the WCA was “an important part of reforming incapacity benefits, a system which was widely accepted as being in need of reform”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Treasury criticised by watchdog over equality failings

The Treasury may have failed in its legal duty to consider how some of the cuts announced in its 2010 spending review would impact on disabled people, the equality watchdog has concluded.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spent 18 months – twice as long as originally intended – assessing in detail how the Treasury reached some of the most controversial spending decisions in the October 2010 spending review.

The assessment report looks at whether Treasury ministers and civil servants met their legal obligations – under public sector equality duties – to consider fully the impact of decisions to cut benefits, government subsidies and services on disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.

Six of those decisions were found to comply with the law, including proposals to limit the contributory form of employment and support allowance to one year, cut spending on legal aid, and withdraw the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from people in residential homes (a plan later scrapped following pressure from disabled campaigners).

But the report found that three decisions could have breached equality duties – although the EHRC was not able to say for sure, because of a lack of evidence – including the move to cut subsidies for bus companies and scrap the education maintenance allowance.

Although the report praises ministers and officials for “serious” efforts to meet their legal obligations, it also contains a string of explicit and implicit criticisms of the Treasury.

It is critical of the failure to consult in advance with disabled people about the mobility component cut – particularly the failure to discover exactly how care home residents use their DLA.

It also reveals that Treasury ministers were briefed that cuts to bus subsidies would not disproportionately affect disabled people, even though the Department for Transport had made it clear that they would.

The assessment report also stresses that information about the “potential disproportionate impact” of the legal aid cuts on disabled people, women and ethnic minorities was in front of the “Quad” – the prime minister, deputy prime minister, Treasury chief secretary and chancellor – when they approved the decision.

The EHRC secured “unprecedented” access to Treasury documents for the review, under conditions of strict secrecy.

Mike Smith, an EHRC commissioner and chair of the commission’s disability committee, said the review was “one of the most exhaustive” the EHRC had ever carried out.

He said the report would change the way the government and other public bodies make spending decisions in the future, and could prove hugely influential in helping disabled people and their organisations hold them to account.

Smith said: “The report shows that actively involving disabled people in decision-making processes means you are more likely to make the right decision in the first place.”

The report does make it clear that as long as politicians and officials consider the equality impact of their decisions and the steps they could take to “mitigate” that impact, they can then go ahead and make those decisions.

But Smith said: “This report was not about whether these measures were discriminatory. It was about whether they complied with the law.

“The really positive thing is that the Treasury, the most influential government department, has committed to doing things better in the future.”

A Treasury spokeswoman said: “The Treasury will consider the good practice recommendations carefully and respond in due course.”

She added: “The government takes equalities incredibly seriously and at the spending review exceeded its legal duties.

“We are pleased that the EHRC says that the government ‘consciously and actively sought to fulfil the duties’ on equalities in the spending review.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Campaign raises fears over ‘unsafe’ vehicle conversions

Some wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) are potentially unsafe for passengers or drivers travelling in their wheelchairs, and should never have been allowed on the roads, claim campaigners.

The campaigning user-led charity Disabled Motoring UK (DM UK) spoke out as it joined Constables Mobility – a leading conversion company – to launch a campaign calling for stricter testing of WAVs.

The No Compromises! campaign calls on the government to make it illegal for any WAV model to be allowed on the road without first undergoing strict “sled” testing.

It is also urging disabled customers to ask for a certificate of sled testing before they buy a WAV, and is calling on the Motability car scheme to stop leasing WAVs that are not “sled tested”.

Helen Dolphin, DM UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said: “I want Motability to take note and realise that this is something that should be done.

“They should stop accepting cars onto their scheme unless they have had all the proper checks.”

A sled test involves strapping a crash-test dummy into a wheelchair within the car, which is put through head-on collisions to check that the belts and their fixtures are strong enough to withstand an accident and keep the wheelchair-user secure.

DM UK and Constables say the extra test is vital because of the significant and complex changes made to cars when they are converted to become wheelchair-accessible.

Figures on accidents involving WAVs are not collected so it is impossible to say how many wheelchair-users may have been injured or even killed because of problems with the conversions of their vehicles.

But Dolphin said: “It is amazing that vehicles are being sold that may not be safe for the drivers and their disabled passengers, and we feel strongly that this must stop.

“Until a car has had that kind of test, there is no guarantee that it will hold or restrain a wheelchair-user if they have had an accident.”

She added: “I don’t want to drive anybody out of business but at the end of the day the most important thing here is disabled people’s safety.”

A Motability spokeswoman said that standards for all their conversions were governed by European Union law and backed by industry bodies such as the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters Association (WAVCA).

She said: “All WAVs supplied to Motability customers are compliant with EU and UK regulations, in place at the time of the vehicle registration, as well as adopting any additional standards agreed and required by WAVCA.”

But when asked how many Motability vehicles had not been sled tested, and whether Motability would take any action to ensure all vehicles were sled tested, she refused to comment.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat local transport minister, said he welcomed DM UK’s “commitment to ensuring wheelchair-users travel in safety” and shared that objective.

He added: “All vehicles need to meet a range of safety rules to enable them to operate on the road. This ensures that good levels of protection are offered to the driver and passengers.”

But he said: “We have seen no convincing evidence to show that the approval system for converted vehicles needs changing, or that road safety is being compromised as a result of vehicles being modified post-registration. However, we will continue to monitor this closely with industry.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Disability movement divided over Remploy closures

Significant parts of the disability movement have backed disabled Remploy workers who are set to lose their jobs because of government plans to shut their sheltered factories.

Despite their continued opposition to the kind of segregated and sheltered employment provided by the Remploy factories, a string of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) are demanding that the government abandons the closures.

They say that simply shutting the factories and making their disabled workers redundant is the wrong decision at a time of recession.

A letter opposing the closures, written by Inclusion London, has been signed by leading DPOs such as Inclusion Scotland, Disability Action in Islington, Cooltan Arts, Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, Greenwich Association of Disabled People, Norfolk Association of Disabled LGBT People and Shaping Our Lives.

Leading parts of the disabled people’s grassroots anti-cuts movement, including the groups Disabled People Against Cuts, Black Triangle and the Broken of Britain, have also signed the letter, as have scores of unions, leading disabled activists, MPs and voluntary organisations.

They say in the letter, published this week in the Guardian: “Our goal and demand for inclusive employment must not be used to justify job cuts that will push these workers into poverty, exclusion, and isolation.”

The letter also calls for investment and support to turn the factories into user-led social enterprises, and more government investment in Access to Work (AtW) and other employment support, a commitment to tackling workplace discrimination and the right to inclusive education and training.

Although the UK Disabled People’s Council has not signed the letter, it also raised concerns about the closures this week.

Jaspal Dhani, UKDPC’s chief executive, told Disability News Service (DNS): “UKDPC welcomes the government’s intention to close sheltered workshops like Remploy but that cannot just be done overnight, putting a number of disabled people out of work in a climate where there is a lack of job opportunities.

“Change has to be managed and we do not want disabled people to become victims of that change.”

But other leading DPOs are backing the government and insisting that the decision to close the factories is the right one, despite the recession.

Essex Coalition of Disabled People (ecdp), Southampton Centre for Independent Living (SCIL), Breakthrough UK, and Disability Rights UK (DR UK) wrote this week to the Sunday Express – which is campaigning against the closures – to back the decision to shut the factories and invest the money saved in AtW.

It was last year’s review of employment support by Liz Sayce, chief executive of DR UK, which suggested an end to government ownership and funding for Remploy, and the closure of factories which were “not viable”, alongside an expanded AtW scheme.

Ian Loynes, SCIL’s chief executive, told DNS that there was “never going to be a good time” for the Remploy workers to lose their jobs.

He said: “We believe it is a good move. We support the minister in her decision. To do anything else will result, we believe, in losing all arguments on segregated provision in the future. We will lose all the good work we have done over the last 30 years.”

He said that Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, had made it clear that all those disabled Remploy workers losing their jobs would be given individual support packages to help them find new, mainstream jobs.

Loynes accused some campaigners – particularly unions – of using arguments “of the past” to push their case, such as arguing that Remploy workers would face discrimination if they tried to find jobs in mainstream workplaces.

He said: “If you buy into that, you buy into a future that increases the likelihood of segregation and the likelihood of people being segregated and marginalised.”

Loynes said he believed that the range of opinions expressed about the Remploy closures within the disability movement was not a concern and instead was “something we should celebrate”.

Mike Adams, ecdp’s chief executive, said the closure plan was “absolutely the right thing to do” and accused parts of the disability movement of shifting its position over Remploy.

He said all of the disabled people and organisations that he witnessed take part in the Sayce review – apart from Remploy workers – had made it clear that the factories “should have closed 20 years ago”.

He said: “I don’t think the disability movement should be very proud of itself having moved its position.

“Disabled people in Essex were very, very clear that the Remploy factories should close. It is important that we show some leadership.”

He added: “At some point we just have to go ahead and do it, but make sure that there is a strong transitional process that supports the individual into other employment or other activities.

“Those safeguards have been put in place so I see no reason why they should not just do it now.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Disabled workers still face ‘bleak’ struggle for support

Disabled people are still facing a “bleak picture” in their struggle to secure the support they need in the workplace, according to a new report from the equality watchdog.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, A Perfect Partnership, says awareness of disability rights is still low, and disclosing an impairment to an employer is seen as “a high risk strategy” by many disabled workers.

Disabled people have told the EHRC of “bullying and harassment and not fitting the image”, while others said that “reasonable adjustments are sometimes resented by managers and colleagues”.

The EHRC says in the report that evidence suggests “a bleak picture of individuals often isolated and struggling to assert their rights and to access support, many of whom suffer for a number of years”.

The report says that closing the “employment gap” between disabled and non-disabled workers – the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in work – can improve performance across an organisation.

Only half of disabled adults are in work, compared with four-fifths of non-disabled adults, and the report warns that the gap could widen as a result of public sector job cuts.

Among the solutions suggested by disabled people were more supportive managers, flexible working, and support and understanding from colleagues, but “virtually no-one had been offered these things”.

Employers told the EHRC that disabled people often only disclosed their impairments “when something goes wrong in the workplace and then it was often too late for a quick solution to be found”.

And most employers recognised that line managers played a crucial role in resolving problems but were often left “isolated and left to sort out adjustments”.

Among the report’s recommendations, it calls for employers to be more proactive in anticipating support, for example by seeking information from all new job starters, even from those who are not disabled, and for improved training and guidance for managers.

The report also recommends that flexible working is offered to all disabled workers and job applicants, and that the Access to Work scheme is extended – as recommended by last year’s review of employment support by Liz Sayce.

And it says that employers must make clear that there is “zero tolerance of hostility and harassment” in the workplace.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com