• Simone

Assessments for Disability Benefits

Disability Benefits Assessments have not been out of the media spotlight over the past few years. Disabled people being left to die, have committed suicide and left in dire poverty as a result of recent welfare reforms. Whilst much of the criticism has been levelled at private companies carrying out the assessments, issues of the assessment design is often overlooked.

Since the 21st century, welfare benefit assessments have been increasingly standardised with the aim of achieving greater objectivity and accountability in the awarding of welfare benefits. Welfare Benefit Assessments such as Employment and Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payments involves a tick-box exercise, asking claimants specific questions about their physical and mental functioning in their day-to-day lives. Clainments will score points if they can demonstrate sufficient difficulty in one or more specified areas of functioning. In theory, all benefit claimants would be treated in the same manner; the rational is that different assessors would come to the same conclusion about a disabled person’s eligibility and therefore take out the human subjectivity out of the assessment process. After all, nothing can go wrong with asking disabled individuals if they can perform a particular task, surely it involves a Yes or No and nothing in between!! Some of the questions claimants are asked to answer during their ESA assessment as follows:

  • Mobilising unaided by another person with or without a walking stick, manual wheelchair or other aid if such aid can reasonably be used; This includes can the claimant walk more than 50 metres in a reasonable amount of time without discomfort.

  • Making self-understood through speaking, writing, typing, or other means normally used, unaided by another person such as difficulty conveying a simple message to stranger.

  • Manual dexterity cannot press a button, such as a telephone keypad or use a suitable keyboard or mouse.

The big issues about asking such questions is that whilst they appear to be objective, in reality the answers are more likely to be of a subjective nature, which have done little to improve the consistency of assessment procedure for disabled people. Take the mobility question, how does one measure discomfort, what is considered a reasonable amount of time and what constitutes walking. Little regard is given to the context and environment. In an accessible environment, disabled person could walk 50 metres. However the same journey in poor weather or whilst one is experiencing mental health issues may be more difficult or even impossible to perform. Similarly, one may be able to use a computer and press buttons on a telephone keyboard at home; it does not mean this is possible when out and about in the community. And communication with others, what is considered as strangers, people in the street, customers, and new colleagues in work and alike? Whilst disabled person can communicate simple messages, no considerations are given to delivery and ability to achieve one’s goals. Scoring claimant’s answers to manual dexterity and communications answers are equally subjective. Even if each claimant is asked to demonstrate their ability to use a standard computer and mouse during the actual assessment, what is meant by “difficulty” will be a decision made subjectively by the assessor.

Objectivity can never be achieved in the assessment system either by having prescribed criteria, scoring tables and independent assessors because so many factors impact upon disabled individuals experiences of impairment and environment. How does one evidence pain, measure discomfort, length of time to perform task and so on?

Further given, the Work Capability Assessment is about assessing disabled peoples capability for work, the whole context of work appears to be omitted from the assessment framework. Equipment, Demands, expectations and environment of a workplace is very different from ones of a domestic and personal context, thus ESA assessment lacks validity. The criticism is often targeted at Capita and Maximus, the private companies carrying out the assessments. I am unconvinced that taking the assessments back in-house would bring about changes in how disabled benefit claimants should be assessed. Whilst, relevant public agencies who would be responsible for assessing benefit claimants entitlement maybe better resourced, what I believe is rotten at the core are actual assessment criteria and the illusion of objectivity.


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