**What I felt when I passed the benefits test.
My disability hasn’t changed – even so, I’m subject to invasive questioning to get the money I need. For many, it’s even worse.**
**_Can you be lucky if you get something you deserve ?
I felt lucky last week as I read the letter informing me I’d been awarded personal independence payments (Pip). Like a couple of million other disabled people, for years I’d received Pip’s predecessor, disability living allowance, without any problems in order to pay for the extra costs of my disability – but it was recently reassessed in the name of “welfare reform”.
It’s the oddest of things, “welfare reform”. You sit there, opposite a stranger, asked to detail the sort of intimacies you’d be reluctant to share with a lifelong friend. “Are there parts of your body you can’t reach to wash? Which ones?” “How do you put your bra on?” You wonder why exactly such lines of questioning are necessary, or how the tens of pages you filled out for hours beforehand weren’t enough, and then explain, as politely as you can, the extra painkillers it took in order to get dressed for this assessment this morning.
The assessor tries – because she is polite and you are lucky she is kind – complimenting you on your nice home, even though you both know you’d like her to leave it as soon as possible. You also know that you are “lucky” that you were granted permission to be assessed at home; you could just as easily have been forced to travel miles, exhausted, or sent in your wheelchair to a centre with steps and no ramp. You consider how exactly the employee of a private company is in a better place to judge your health needs than your own consultant who has provided evidence, and whether putting foundation on was a mistake in case you look “too well”.
Throughout it all, there sits the elephant in the room: that this is all pointless. That by virtue of genetics, it is scientifically impossible that you have been cured since your last assessment. And yet you sit there, going through the motions, because non-disabled cabinet ministers told the rightwing media that people like you shouldn’t be “allowed to fester” on benefits.
Pip is, of course, just one part of sweeping disability benefit “reform” in recent years, in which “reform” has become a euphemism for savage cuts. This week research by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), a coalition of more than 80 UK disability organisations, showed changes to the social security system over the past 10 years have left disabled adults four times worse off financially than those without a disability. It has long been understood that disabled people have borne the brunt of austerity, but this is the first time a comprehensive study has laid it bare.
The details of the report paint a picture of the government running a cruel game: the more health problems you have, the more you actually lose out – people with six or more disabilities are losing more than £2,100 each year on average, compared with someone with one disability, who loses £700 – while disabled children have been targeted too.
Households with one disabled adult and one disabled child have had their support cut most, with average losses of more than £4,300 a year. This is a nation of distorted priorities, in which prospective prime ministers flex tax cuts for the healthy and wealthy, and the already poor and sick are pushed further into hardship.
The DBC study details the way in which many disabled and chronically ill people put through “reforms” feel “highly stressed, distrusted, and constantly challenged”. One woman with multiple sclerosis told the researchers that she had had her Pip cut and was about to lose the Motability car she needed to get to work. The anguish brought on a severe MS relapse. She’s now lost all feeling in her left leg.
I was “lucky”. Unlike some, I didn’t have to skip meals because my disability benefits had been removed. I wasn’t forced to go through a lengthy and exhausting appeal. I wasn’t, like the late Stephen Smith, forced to discharge myself from hospital in order to attend the tribunal to fight my case. But it is surely a sign of a broken system when disabled people relying on Britain’s safety net are grateful if it catches them without too much pain.
In this way, “welfare reform” reinforces the narrative drilled into members of marginalised groups – that while for many the state is a vehicle to support them in times of need, for others it offers little more than abuse and disbelief.
The DBC report offers conclusive proof of what disabled people have long known: benefit cuts are unjust, harmful, and widespread. Ministers may one day begin to care – if we are lucky.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and the author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People._**