Use the mike

July 31, 2012

Yesterday I went to Sheffield station to buy some railway tickets.  My mother is deaf, so she doesn’t like to transact on the phone, and she’s in her eighties, so she’s not comfortable transacting on the internet.  So we jumped in a cab and went down to the station so she could renew her senior railcard and buy the tickets for us both to go down to London next month to see the Queen’s Diamonds.

There’s a sound system in place, so when we finally made it to the counter she set her hearing aid to the T setting and was able to hear the clerk (although she couldn’t, then, hear me, standing next to her, and had to switch back and forth).  But after she’d done the railcard transaction and we’d selected the dates and times we wanted to travel, the clerk told us the price.

“Sorry, I’m not hearing you,” I said.  The clerk gave me That Look – you know the one.  The “are you stupid or something” look.  And repeated what she’d said, at exactly the same volume.  Just move the mike, I thought – I could hear the guy at the next counter, perfectly loud and clear, because he had the mike an inch from his mouth and the volume turned up.  But this lady obviously didn’t think using the mike was necessary.  “Sorry, I still can’t hear you,” I said, and again got The Look and another repetition, this time with an eyeroll.  My mother, being of the “don’t make a fuss” generation, simply put her credit card into the machine, paid the amount we couldn’t decipher, and we checked it all later.  No big deal, right?

Well, have you ever tried to get your employer to make a reasonable adjustment to your working conditions on account of a disability covered by the Equality Act?  If the simple action of getting someone to use correctly the equipment that’s already there is a problem, imagine what it would be like trying to educate your employer on what their duties are and your reasonable requirements might be, while you were feeling ill in the first place.  I’m exaggerating?  I’ve just written and then deleted (because they aren’t my stories) a paragraph detailing three different examples I know of from my personal acquaintance of people who have had grotesque difficulties getting different employers to abide by the law in the last year; partly because, when you’re ill, you’re not really in a good place to provide a teachable moment to your employer in the first place, let alone the assertiveness to insist they comply with the law that’s in place for your protection.  It’s easier to be quiet, don’t make a fuss, make do.

Living with a disability must be hard.  Working with a disability is hard enough when you acquire the disability after you acquire the job, are a valuable source of knowledge and ability for your employer, and know and exercise your rights.

Well, what about Remploy, the business that employs workers with disabilities in an inclusive environment?  Oh, yea, being shut down.  Because, apparently, there are better ways of supporting people with disabilities in mainstream employment.

OK.  But what IS that support?  Well, if you were watching anything except the Olympics last night, you’d have seen either the Dispatches programme: Britain on the Sick or the Panorama programme, Disabled or Faking It?  Both programmes showed DWP film of people who had been prosecuted for faking disabilities but reminded us that this amounts to less than half a per cent of the people actually claiming disability allowances.  The real problem identified by both programmes was the mechanism the government has put in place to assess whether people needed to be “on the sick” or were “fit for work”.  Dispatches concentrated on ATOS and secretly filmed a GP taking the ATOS assessors’ training.  Panorama concentrated on the claimants – including the gentleman found fit for work while he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act!  Lucy Mangan spoke for me and, I believe, for millions watching, when she wrote in the Guardian:

Why don’t you just stop it,” you wanted to say. “Just stop doing this cruel, pointless, terrible thing to people. Stop adding to the sum of human misery in the world and start working for our betterment instead.”

Because it was all about finding people were capable of work – if they had one finger they could push a button, if they could sit or stand they could work a checkout, if they could theoretically propel themselves in a wheelchair they were mobile, even if they didn’t actually have a wheelchair.  And while I see the government’s argument that it’s better to think about what people can do rather than what they can’t do, none of this amounts to a hill of beans if there isn’t a job for them to move into, an employer willing to take on a one-fingered, invisible-wheelchair-using person.
One final thought.  Chris Grayling said that “there are no targets anywhere in the system“.  In other words, ATOS don’t have a fixed target of people to find fit for work (or, unfit for financial support).  This is a pusillanimous equivocation.  There may not be a “target” – find 12% of them fit for work or we sack you.  But there is an “average“: the average number of people found fit for work is 12% and if you’re outside of the average you’ll be audited.  And then look at table 1 on page 36 of the 2010 Budget Costings document which shows the expected exchequer impact of “reforming (sic) disability living allowance”.   Next year we’re taking £360 million from sick people and, the year after, £1,075 million.
Well, not in my name.  If this makes you, too, into an #angrycitizen, take a few moments to sign the epetition here.  And write to your MP.

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