Monday, 12 January 2015

Going back to work from the Support Group

It is by now pretty common knowledge that Sue Marsh has accepted a full time position as "Head of Customer Experience" with Maximus, the company of controversial reputation taking over the WCA from the infamous ATOS.

There has been a lot of understandable anger to this, with many people left feeling abandoned and betrayed. I cannot say I have welcomed the news as I feel we have lost a valuable campaigner and question how much change will be able to be made from within a company which merely implements DWP policy.

However I have been slightly surprised at the backlash at her taking on a job at all. I do understand that there is always the fear that seeing one person successfully returning to work may lead a misinformed public to say that "everyone can do it", or that such a person shouldn't have been on benefits in the first place, but I feel that we ourselves should know better.

The Support Group is a strange beast. Generally we say that it is for those "too sick to work". But this is incorrect. It certainly includes those people but it is far more complex than that and for many it is not so black and white.

On the one hand some people automatically qualify on the basis of some straightforward criteria. These criteria, I might add, are not always ones which mean you cannot work.

For instance one of them I know well since it applies to myself, is that you are unable to walk or propel yourself in a wheelchair for 50m. So in other words pretty much any electric wheelchair user automatically gets into the support group.
While it is tremendously difficult to find a job as an electric wheelchair user, due both to transport issues, access difficulties and employer prejudice, it is not impossible. Disabled people in this position should be strongly supported and encouraged if there are no other aggravating factors preventing them from working. Such people would quite legally go straight from Support Group to full time work.

Other people are in the support group for much less straightforward reasons and may have symptoms which will directly impact on their work. Where the electric wheelchair user may be able to find a job where their impairment is not an issue, for some people this is never going to be possible. Their impairment will affect everything they do.
This group includes many people with chronic illnesses, people with symptoms such as pain and fatigue (not exclusive to illness), mental health illnesses, learning disabilities, and impairments such as speech, hearing or visual impairments.

Among these people I believe we have a further two groups.
First there are those who would be able to work if the perfect job came along with all the right tailor made adjustments. Even then, given that they are in the support group, it is highly likely that even this perfect job would take a toll on their health in some way. This should therefore be a choice and not an obligation.
Then there are those who would not be able to work even if every possible adjustment was made and/or only a few hours a week were required.
EDIT: For an example of the sort of toll even the "perfect" job can take, please read this excellent but hard hitting piece on the blog Benefit Scrounging Scum. @Bendygirl, who recently went back to work, highlights the dilemma between her desire to work, her rapidly deteriorating health, and the need to look after her health. Work, contrary to government policy, is not always good for you.

I was someone who for 5 years had one such "perfect" job in academia as a researcher. I worked on results not hours per week. I could work from home as much as I wanted, and I could work lying down in bed. It didn't matter that I regularly had to unpredictably have a lot of time off or spend time in hospital. I often even worked there.
Later on when I got even sicker, I was able to go part time and it was well enough paid for me to do so.
This job did take its toll physically. It increased pain levels and did make my health quite a lot worse. I chose to do it because I enjoyed it so much and I felt that the emotional and mental boost it gave me was worth the physical downside.

Had I not been "lucky" enough to get it, I would have been in the Support Group of ESA. Vice versa, had I been in the Support Group of ESA at that time and been offered it, I would have quite legally gone straight from Support Group into employment, even though I was very sick and disabled.

However although I am indeed now in the Support Group of ESA, I am now much sicker than I was then. Even if that "perfect" job came up again tomorrow, I would not be able to take it, not at any price.

I think this illustrates quite nicely how different people in the Support Group can be at very different distances from employment depending on how their impairment affects them.
Some could take a job given a non prejudiced supportive employer, an accessible workplace and an Access to Work system fit for purpose.
Some could take that ultra-rare "perfect" job that somehow fits around their impairment and would choose to put up with the downturn in their symptoms.
Some couldn't take any job under any circumstances.

Nearly all would like to work if it were possible...