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  • Writer's pictureDaisy Holder

In the news this week...: Disability Politics for the Uninitiated.

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

This is a bit of a different post, so please let me know what you think of it!

I know disability current affairs are missed somewhat by many people if they're not personally affected by it, especially in different countries.

It may be a surprise that I haven't included the #strawban here but honestly the whole thing makes me want to punch someone and I've had enough of that this week


The Planned Merger of Assessments for ESA and PIP

The Basics:

In the UK we have two primary benefits for disabled people (there are lots of others attached to other benefits, such as disability premiums but they are quite complex); Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP, this replaced DLA- Disability Living Allowance- a few years back during the government's welfare reforms.)

PIP is designed to cover the extra costs associated with being disabled (on average, being disabled costs us over £500 a month) while ESA is supposed to replace a wage for those unable to work due to their disability. Crucially, PIP is not means tested, and you can get it while in work.

Currently, they are separate benefits with separate assessment processes dealt with by different government departments. PIP is dealt with by the Department of Work and Pensions and ESA is done by the Jobcentre.

Thanks to the government reforms, both involve filling out a lengthy form, attending a medical assessment (in most cases) and sometimes interviews on other details such as your living arrangements (I was questioned about whether I was in a relationship with my flatmate, as living with a partner would have significantly reduced the money I was entitled to).

The length of award you are given for each of these benefits varies greatly, and the time the applications take is often extensive (for me, 6 months for ESA and 18 months for PIP once my appeal had got to court).

Both benefits require a significant quantity of "medical proof", such as letters from doctors, proof of medical tests or hospital stays and many doctors now charge for these letters because of the time they take (usually £10). I usually photocopy my entire medical file and send it to them, which is a lot as a method to try and annoy them into submission.

The News:

Work and Pensions Secretary (for now) Amber Rudd has announced plans to combine the separate assessment processes for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit into one system.

The Government claim an integrated system will reduce the need to submit information multiple times. For some applicants, it will also reduce the number of face-to-face assessments.

The new scheme would see data being shared across one digital system, as opposed to applicants having to submit the same information for different assessments.

The Concerns:

The two benefits are very different, and given for two different reasons, and there are fears that if the assessments are integrated applicants will be approved/rejected for both at the same time, leaving them with nothing.

Disabled groups say that so many assessments have been so inaccurate that an incorrect assessment would wipe out all of a person's benefit money in one go, and while an appeal process is ongoing they get the minimal amount of help. The appeals process is also very long, and it is rare that anyone can get an expedited court date and there are accusations that this will make the entire process more complicated and stressful for claimants.

It will also vastly increase the number of factors that each assessor has to check for, giving more scope for error and misunderstanding, considering the issues people have had so far with the misunderstanding of various impairments (eg "when did you catch Down's Syndrome?") as well as the link between disability and ability to work which are of course not connected at all.

There are also worries about the contract for this being worth £3 million pounds and it going SO WELL the last time they gave the contracts to the private sector (eg ATOS and Capita)

Many disability groups are disappointed that the government has acknowledged that there are problems with the benefits system, and yet rather than look into changing the face to face assessments which have already proved to be unreliable (approx 70% of those who appeal their PIP award win at tribunal) and more expensive (the current disability benefits system has cost far more than the old DLA system) they've decided to try and work around the assessment.

The Response:

A statement from the DWP has said that the intention for the "merge" is not narrowing it down to one single process (yet) but purely an information service, so that disabled people don't have to find and submit all of their medical evidence repeatedly for each benefit.

However they are also doing a "small trial" on combining the face to face assessments.

So this news isn't what many people have been concerned it is, but it does seem to be heading that way.

In theory, the idea of both departments information sharing is good, considering how little they currently talk to each other but there will have to be a lot of tests and checks to make sure it doesn't increase errors and inequality. But a pilot on merging the assessments is concerning, especially if it goes the same way as the Universal Credit trial (clearly doesn't work, let's go ahead anyway)

Obviously we don't have that much detail on the plans yet, we just have Amber Rudd's speech in March (they actually had a BSL interpreter which was a shock) and the DWP's clarification in response to concerns from the media. (It was a fair enough clarification to ask for, they were not specific at all)

I suspect the details of this may be sneaked out at another time, so I will have to keep an eye out and update this when we know how the trial will work, where it will be, and how the information sharing will work. All in all, it sounds like a very simplistic attempt at a solution to a complex problem, and I suspect there will be many more false starts before any of this comes to pass. Particularly as we're now in the run up to a leadership election in which the primary topic is Brexit rather than austerity and saving money, maybe we can hide behind a tree and it will be kicked into the long grass for the time being.


Australia's Immigration Rules Discriminate Against Disabled People

The Basics:

Australia's rules are strict anyway, as anyone who knows anyone who has had a gap year in Oz knows. A lot of their visa rules revolve around the idea that each person who comes to Australia from elsewhere has to have a net benefit to the country (hence the extension of a tourist working visa requires a certain amount of farming labour to support the application).

The permanent visas are also very expensive and require the filling out of a lot of forms and doing them all correctly, which therefore usually requires a lawyer. As a result many people who are on more temporary working visas do not apply for permanent residency for many years, by which time circumstances have changed and lots have had children and families.

The News:

Australia's immigration system discriminates against disabled people because it assumes the person will have a net cost and be a burden to the Australian people. This often excludes them from allowing a visa to even visit family or friends. It is one of a handful of rich countries which rejects nearly all immigrants with a disability. People applying for a visa are required to undergo a health check, and prove that being granted a visa won't "result in a significant cost to the community or prevent Australian citizens from accessing healthcare or community services in short supply".

Many people in these situations (eg children of skilled immigrants who were previously welcomed to the country) have visas which ensure that the disabled person is not entitled to healthcare, even when they were born in Australia.

This is only done for disabled people, and the assumption of how much they will cost. There is no similar concentration on other costs for the country, such as road use or schools for skilled migrants who may have many children in the future.

People subjected to these visa rules include people who have lived in Australia for years, including a 17 year old deaf teenager, who uses Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and was eventually allowed to stay on the basis that he would struggle to find a community outside the country that would use the same language as him. This is a very odd one, because it makes it sound like they don't understand what deafness is.

Two middle aged white men and a middle aged white woman in the form of a collaged image
Clockwise from top: Matthew Albence- American Acting Director of ICE, David Coleman- Australian Minister for Immigration, Amber Rudd- British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Law:

This discrimination is baked into Australia's fundamental values and history, and links into the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act which made law the exclusion of immigrants based on race, physical health and mental health. It was widely accepted that these Australians wanted their 'new' country to be white and able bodied.

While the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act prohibits differential treatment on the basis of disability, discrimination on the grounds of disability is not unlawful under the 1958 Migration Act, as this act is specifically exempt from the rules of the DDA.

The Result:

Often people at the mercy of these laws have to rely on public sympathy after making a song and dance in the media, and the whims of whoever is the immigration minister at that time to decide whether they are a worthy enough case to be allowed to stay.

After a 2010 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Migration Treatment of Disability, the significant cost threshold (the amount up to which someone is allowed to cost for the duration of their visa) was raised to $40,000 from $35,000. There were many other recommendations that were 'considered', then ignored.


USA Disabled Immigrants in Detention Segregated Due To Their Impairment

The Basics:

While there has obviously been a vast increase in recent years of immigrants being detained, it has been going on for a long time. When the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have arrested a suspected illegal immigrant they take them to an immigration detention centre. While these are not prisons, they have similar restrictive rules and set ups. People are put here until they have determined whether they are legally allowed to stay in the USA (eg if their claim for asylum has been accepted, whether they are granted a visa or whether they will be deported.)

The News:

A policy advisor from the Department of Homeland Security, Ellen Gallagher, has gone public after many years attempting to raise her concerns within the department saying that ICE in fact segregates many detainees as a first resort for reasons completely unrelated to the rules such as being disabled or LGBT. Her account as well as documents gathered from a freedom of information request have been pooled to try to understand the full extent to how these people's freedom has been abused. There are reports of people being put into solitary confinement because they needed a cane or a wheelchair, or because they had a prosthetic leg.

The Problem:

They have isolation rooms for those who have broken rules, however according to ICE's own rules they are supposed to be used as a last resort, particularly those with a 'vulnerability'.

They sometimes refer to their segregated detainment as "protective custody", meaning they can be let out of their single rooms for just one hour a day. Many people in protective custody were also on suicide watch, which is even more restrictive, but there are lots of records of people with mental illnesses who were put in solitary as punishment for self harming or attempting suicide. There were also cases of mentally ill people being isolated for being a victim of an attack and also for exhibiting behaviour relating to their illness.

In the records a man who cut himself with a razor was detained in solitary confinement for a "weapons offence and self mutilation". There were also reports of more than 60 disabled people who were put in isolation purely because they needed a mobility aid. The use of canes/crutches/wheelchairs was treated as "security risks".

A man who required a cast for an injury to his hand was put in isolation for the potential for his cast to be used as a blunt weapon during fights, but also because his injury wouldn't allow him to defend himself during a fight.

"Essentially where a detainee's behaviour or characteristics are perceived to be disruptive, evidence of non-compliance or a threat to the general population or 'good order' of the facility, segregation serves as a default remedy".

The ICE internal guidelines state that they have to note what alternatives were considered, but there is no evidence that this was adhered to. There have been 13 deaths in the care of ICE for those who have been kept in isolation (probably more, they would only keep records for those who were either 'special vulnerabilities' or stayed in isolation for longer than 14 days) and in at least 8 of those cases ICE admitted errors.

The Response:

The UN states that solitary confinement amounts to "torture, or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment" and it should only be used in exceptional circumstances, and even then for no more than 15 days.

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