My form had to be returned by April 8th so I was quite surprised to get a phone call from the DWP so quickly - a nice lady rang yesterday morning. The nice DWP lady seemed a bit peturbed by my voice loss* and kept asking if I was well enough to speak to her as she could call back. Having not heard why she was phoning at that point there was no way I was letting her go without telling me what the call was about, I'd have been hysterical all weekend.
So, through croaks, coughs and splutters the nice lady read out her script and told me that I'd been found to have such significant disability that I've been placed in the support group, to be reviewed in April 2016. I asked her a few questions, but had to wait for the right part in the script she was reading - apparently they aren't allowed to deviate from that even when asked a question. Mostly it was ok, but there were disturbing implications in the script - I'd been found too sick/disabled to be expected to participate in any work related activity, but I could always 'volunteer' at the Jobcentre if I want. Which is slightly odd because volunteer and jobcentre aren't exactly words I'd naturally associate with each other...it took me a while to work out it did not mean that the jobcentre would support me with actual volunteering work, but that I could volunteer to erm, I'm not sure actually...be sanctioned on a work programme?
Once the relief settles down a bit I'll go through the inevitable psychological consequences of being deemed so disabled that even in the current climate the DWP don't feel the need to harrass me, but that isn't a new feeling, its always associated with successful benefit claims in relation to sickness or disability. It's strange - however frightened and anxious people are about claiming, however relieved they are by being granted eligibility to a particular benefit, afterwards there's always a strange readjustment process to a sickness or disability you've long adjusted to coping with as best you can.
But, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a clear diagnosis of a genetic disorder to explain my symptoms. I have a supportive GP who was happy to supply the relevant medical evidence, I'm educated and I understand how to fill out a form, I have people in my life who I can ask for help and support through the process. Like I say, that makes me one of the lucky ones. Going through the ESA process is not like that for most people. And even as one of the lucky ones I've experienced so much stress from the process that its had a significant impact on my general health, which will take me time to recover from. If I knew I had to do all this again next year I would be in utter despair, but having three years gives me a level of security about my future and the freedom to continue either volunteering or hoping that eventually there might be a realistic way for people too sick/disabled to work consistently, even on a part time from home basis to use their skills to earn some money but not lose eligibility to the support we need. Once upon a time some of us hoped this would be the big change with Universal Credit, but the application of politics and ignorance to a once good idea has ensured that won't be possible.
I haven't had any contact with Atos at any point, so I can't really comment on their part of the process, other than having been told my application was assessed by them via 'scrutiny' which means that a decision can be made based on the form and submitted medical evidence without seeing the claimant face to face. Communications by phone from DWP have happened when they should do, including reminder phone call. Actually both ladies were lovely which helped, but in all the years I've had to speak to DWP staff as a claimant its the one's who aren't which stand out as the exceptions. Most have been kind and helpful. The new focus on jobcentres and work from DWP staff as part of their standard script is deeply unhelpful though and comes across as intimidatory even when the caller is pleasant.
Written communications however were a different matter. I had the latest version of the form to fill in and it was awful, worse than previous versions. There are tickbox questions which I couldn't work out what the answer was meant to be because the question was so poorly worded. There is no option on the mobility tick box to answer 'less than 50 meters'. As I'm an awkward type I wrote on the actual form that none applied, but only after a great deal of distress. Lots of people tick the 50m box because its the shortest distance but then of course it indicates you can walk 50m. This box comes up in discussions with claimants over and over again.
I can't stress enough how bad the tickbox questions are. With the boxes you can write in what you need to write, they are too small but most people know to use extra paper and attach it. But the tickboxes take more time and cause more distress than the free text answers.
I learnt that going through the process feels like Russian Roulette. I knew with utter certainty that my form had been filled out correctly, that I had hit various descriptors at various points and that the letter from my GP contained the exact information required to make a decision. Despite all that it felt entirely down to chance - would the Decision Maker understand the condition, would the Atos HCP have enough time to scrutinise the file, would it go direct to a face to face WCA because it was too complicated to make the decision. And of course that builds on the enormous stress and fear about the consequences of going to a WCA and how that might impact on the rest of my life, ability to remain in my own home due to impact on benefits by being found fit for work or placed in the work related activity group.
The biggest relief for me is getting a review date in 2016. I now have some security because I've got three years. The constant stress for people repeatedly being given awards of 12 months or less is breaking many people. Asking around other claimants many people haven't been told how long their award lasts so are living with the constant stress and anxiety every time the postman comes. Knowing is better than not knowing, even if its not exactly what you hoped you would find out, and ensuring that everyone is clearly given the date when they can be expected to be re-assessed is such a simple task for the DWP, but would make such a different to sick and disabled people.
*yes, again. I blame the mini weapons of biological warfare also known as nephew and niece!