Saturday, 1 March 2014

My ESA Tribunal Experience

I'm planning on posting my experience of the whole appeals process for ESA. This may be a good way to raise awareness about the way ESA claimants are treated, how hard they have to fight to get support and also to give an informative account of what happens during this process. I'm hoping that, by sharing my story, I can help (those thinking of appealing) know what to expect.

I have Fibromyalgia, Depression, Anxiety, Overactive Bladder Syndrome and Vitamin D Deficiency. When I had my last Atos assessment, for Employment and Support Allowance, I was awarded 15 points, given a prognosis of 6 months (ha!) and put into the Work Programme as part of my work related activity for the Work Related Activity Group. After realising how much I was struggling with participating, I decided to appeal to go into the Support Group. I will most likely be editing this post to add more, as it is taking a long time. For now, here's my account of the tribunal:


Tribunal 



I'd recently been prepped for my hearing but was extremely nervous. Dad had to drive round for a little while to find the closest parking space he could. We ended up parking behind the building and luckily there was a short cut through a tunnel so I didn't have to walk too far. As we approached the tunnel, I drew Dad's attention to the sneaky CCTV camera pointing towards the tunnel. Very strategically placed; ready to “catch out” us 'scroungers'. I noticed the graffiti next to the camera. “Fuck this” written in capitals, with an arrow pointing to the camera. Welcome to Big Brother.

I'm so glad we made good time for my hearing. I had to stop at least 6 times, although the walk wasn't exactly far. If only the Atos nurse had seen that...

The 15ish minutes I waited for my hearing were the longest of my life. I felt so nervous I was visibly shaking, I couldn't look anyone in the eye, all I could think about was getting out of there. The atmosphere itself wasn't exactly bad. Everyone was quite friendly (unlike those at the Atos assessment centre), I think it was more the anticipation of the hearing itself.

The hearing couldn't have taken more than half an hour? It didn't feel very long anyway. There weren't a lot of questions asked and it was mainly focused upon the descriptors myself and my representative were going for (Mobility, Social Engagement and Exceptional Circumstance regulation 35). The judge was quite nice, the doctor was nice too but seemed more doubtful of my case. They both reiterated that the Support Group descriptors were very strict and I think this is part of the reason why I wasn't exactly feeling positive about the whole thing. It's all about fitting in to not-very-well-explained boxes.

The judge explained that, even if I was worse now, the questions would be based around how I was at the time of my assessment. They asked about my medication dosage and also why I was not prescribed anti-depressants or anti-anxiety tablets for my mental illnesses. I explained that I been prescribed anti-anxiety tablets before; namely Citalopram. I had been on a high dose, and these had actually made my condition worse. I had also been on antidepressants before and these did not work. Although medication wasn't completely out of the question, I would prefer to go down the therapy route. The doctor understood that medication wasn't for everybody and she accepted my answer.

Due to the fact that in my Atos report, the nurse had put that I walked 150 metres from my dad's car to the assessment centre, the doctor had to ask questions about my mobility again. She said that in my original form I had ticked the box claiming I could walk 100 metres. I explained that by the time it got to my face-to-face assessment I realise that I had underestimated how far 100 metres was. I said that I had told the nurse this and that it was in fact only 50 metres I could manage before having to stop because of pain, breathlessness, exhaustion and faintness. What I found a bit strange was that the doctor said experiencing pain was different to affecting functioning. Unfortunately she didn't give me the opportunity to explain that level of pain, when quite high, does in fact affect functioning and is one of the main points for my ESA claim. I also explained yet again that I had to stop at least twice from my dad's car to the assessment centre, but this had not been noted in my report.

We then moved on to the topic of social engagement. The judge said that she had noticed in my report that I occasionally meet friends up town for coffee. I explained that this only happens to or three times a year. I said that my dad always has to drive me there and I have to stop quite a lot of times up town in order to catch my breath and rest so the pain can ease a little. I also explained that we would go to quieter shops and caf├ęs so I was not quite as nervous. Although people are around, I'm able to function slightly better in a quieter environment if I'm with someone and I can focus on them. At this point my representative asked to cross-examine me. She asked me what happens if I'm in a situation where I am by myself in a public place. I said that this never really happens but very rare points where it might I am unable to function properly and I become extremely anxious and panicky.

We moved onto the topic of cooking, and I felt as if the doctor was being quite tricky here. It felt as if she wanted to catch me out? She asked whether I made my own meals. I said that most of the time I needed help and that it was very rarely that I was able to actually cook things from scratch because of pain, breathlessness, dizziness, lack of concentration etc. I said that on my better days I could shove a ready meal in the oven or microwave; and reminded her that this was written in my report. She said that the “cooking from fresh” topic was irrelevant and then asked if I could make myself a cup of tea etc. Of course I had to say “yes” to this, and this made me feel as if she was basically implying that I had no problems with preparing food or drink. She also asked how I coped when dad was at work, if mum was disabled? She (almost jokingly) asked who looks after who. I said that myself and my mum looked after ourselves as much as we could, and that there really wasn't a lot we could do in the daytime while dad was at work. I didn't appreciate the kind of attitude I got from the doctor on this subject. It really felt like some sort of interrogation and reminded me of the Atos assessment.

The doctor then asked me what it was about work-related activity that I felt I struggled with. She asked what the biggest point was that I wanted to make about this. I said to her that the work-related place I had to attend was in a small but busy office. I could not function properly because I felt very self-conscious and nervous in this environment. I started crying as I explained that I couldn't concentrate properly during these appointments and most of the time these appointments were a blur to me. The representative asked to cross-examine me again. She prompted me by asking what had happened at my initial induction into the work programme. (This was a great chance for me to make a strong case for myself).

After taking a minute to pull myself together a little bit I told both the judge and the doctor that I had not been told that my induction would involve any group meetings. When I arrived, however, a group of us were gathered together and taken into a room. I felt very panicky when we were all sat down. The person conducting the meeting started asking us about the kind of jobs we wanted to apply for. I said that this made me feel more anxious as I was in no fit state to work and this made me panic more and burst into tears. I told the doctor that I was taken out the room quite quickly as I was not behaving appropriately I was then shown to my personal adviser and the rest of the induction was a blur. I could only remember being handed a few bits of paperwork to sign.

The representative then asked me what happened when I got home. I told her that I had to go straight to bed afterwards because I was so exhausted and in pain and I spent the rest of the day in bed. I added that this happened every time I had a work-related activity meeting and that even travelling to the place caused me pain and exhaustion. This was part of the reason why I thought I was not fit for work related activity. Thinking back, I could have added that the place only had two advisers who were trained to deal with ESA claimants. A lot of the time ESA claimants were given JSA paperwork and both groups were treated pretty much the same. Unfortunately, there was not enough time and don't think it would have helped much.

Pretty soon after that, the judge brought the hearing to a close. She said that as I had brought so much evidence, they would have to go over this first and would send their decision in the post that day. She said that both her and the doctor would decide whether I fit into the Support Group descriptors from moving around and social engagement. If I did not fit either descriptors, they would consider exceptional circumstance regulation 35 (2) (b) “The claimant suffers from some specific disease or bodily or mental disablement and; by reasons of such disease or disablement, there would be a substantial risk to the mental or physical health of any person if the claimant were found not to have limited capability for work-related activity.”

Each day from the Monday was very nerve racking. I would become incredibly anxious every time I heard the post drop through the letterbox. On 27th of February I finally got my decision through. I was shaking as I opened the envelope; hoping that I would still be entitled to ESA. I read the first sentence, "the appeal is refused" and my heart sank a little. As I read on, I found out that I was still entitled to ESA, I would remain in the Work-Related Activity Group and also that my points had been amended from 15 to 30. I checked which descriptors I had now been given points in and found that it had been decided that I could only walk 100 metres at a time, I could only sit or stand for up to an hour at a time, social engagement was precluded for the majority of the time and I could only go to familiar or unfamiliar places if accompanied by someone else. This appeared to take into consideration my mental illnesses, which felt a bit of a triumph, because my anxiety and depression had previously been dismissed in the Atos report as I apparently wasn't rocking in my seat and could maintain eye contact with the nurse. Although it is a disappointment that I could not quite make it into the support group, I hope that my adviser will be understanding of my needs. I want to see if my adviser will allow us to just have phone appointments instead of me having to struggle to get to the office on a regular basis. My argument here is that I need to improve my confidence over the phone so this will be quite a useful work-related activity.

Overall, I'm glad I appealed. It took a lot of fighting and a lot of evidence gathering but it has been worth it. I'm extremely grateful to my friends, family, doctors, specialists and my representative for being so supportive and helpful throughout this. I don't know how I would have managed without you all.

2 comments:

  1. your story is an all too familiar testimonial to the failings of this awful system . for anyone who has had to endure this ( it is a humiliating minefield for the already challeneged by way of capability) as the legal aid part aspect of help with legal representation has now been taken away for lay folk, the only thing I can say is "we are not a third world country, we are a democracy, and your experiences should be noted". it is part of a civilised society to address this to the people who really are genuine, until the extreme right notions are put forward by those who just see this as a numbers game .
    for those who have worked all there working life and paid national contributions
    what did they do that for? use every avenue of help you can get.
    Yes.

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  2. This seems very similar to my own story I am currently awaiting a postal decision after tribunal yesterday. The experience certainly has not improved my health!

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