Sunday 27 July 2014

A Small Victory, for now.

I'm finally in the Support Group for ESA.

I'm quite lucky, in that it didn't take as long as it could've to happen. It was a pleasant surprise too! So here's my 'journey' with ESA so far:

April 2013, on the advice of the Citizen's Advice Bureau, I applied for Employment and Support Allowance. I had read others' experiences with applying and being assessed for this, so knew it would be difficult. I had no other choice though. I simply wasn't well enough to work, and had no other income to support myself.

The first form to fill in, is the ESA1. In it, you give some details about your illness/disability, about your living situation and your finances. There's also space to include partner's information, if you live with them. It'd be worth double checking on the main site, in case the application process has changed, but this is usually the form you would fill in and send back. Towards the end of that month, I received my decision letter to say I was entitled to ESA and would receive the assessment rate. Along with this letter, came my ESA50 (Limited Capability for Work Questionnaire) to fill in and send off to Atos. This was the company contracted, by the government, to assess most ESA claimants. Of course now they have walked away from the contract; only carrying out a few assessments for new claimants. Once I know more about who will be taking on the contract next etc, I'm sure I'll be blogging about it.

My original date of assessment was 5th June. It was then rearranged to 8th July (If I remember correctly, they sent a letter in good time), then I turned up to find they'd cancelled and rearranged to 31st July, without giving me any notice! When I turned up on 31st July, the security guard asked me a few questions; including whether I'd be able to get down the stairs in an emergency (the assessment rooms were on the 1st floor and there was a lift). I said that physically, it was possible, but I get very weak and painful legs, so I wouldn't be safe. He then told me to wait in a room on the ground floor. One of the assessors met me about 10 minutes later, to explain that I could not have my assessment that day because of the health and safety risk with the stairs. I'm sure I'd mentioned problems with stairs in my ESA50, so they should really have considered that! I also didn't expect assessment rooms to be anywhere apart from the ground floor. A huge amount of ESA claimants are bound to have mobility problems after all. So my assessment was rearranged (again) for August time, in a centre about an hour away. It'd be difficult to get there, even with my father driving, but it had to be done!

The second paragraph in this post explains briefly, how the assessment went. I've mentioned this before, but I felt the nurse was quite unprofessional in her manner. She laughed, when I mentioned my bladder problems. She also said she would do an eye test to check I "wasn't telling porkies" when I described my vision problems. I really should've complained, but the whole ordeal was so exhausting, I just wanted to get out of that place. I received the decision letter not too long after my assessment. I had been awarded 15 points, and placed in the Work Related Activity Group for 6 months. I was very relieved, although I was unsure as to what the WRAG entailed exactly. My first Work Focused Interview involved talking through my symptoms, limitations etc, and I was also placed onto the Work Programme because, due to the 6 month 'prognosis', my condition was regarded as "short term" (ha!)

My first Work Programme appointment, was a blurry horrible mess. If I can find a post that describes it, then I'll edit and put a link here. My brain is pretty frazzled from all this typing, but I did want to keep all my ESA experiences in one place. Who knows? It might come in handy for anyone who has been thinking about applying. I'd certainly like this blog to be helpful for others. It basically involved a surprise group induction, me going into complete panic mode, worrying all the advisers and being swiftly taken out of said group induction, then some time I barely remember of meeting my personal adviser and being coerced into signing some paperwork I didn't have the concentration to read properly. The adviser was optimistic that I'd be well enough for work by May 2014, as she'd had Fibromyalgia and she'd woken up one day and it had miraculously disappeared! Hmm, forgive me for not believing that...

From that appointment, and from what they said they would require of me, I felt that maybe the WRAG wasn't the right group for me? I thought there'd be more specialist help, which kept chronic illness and disability in mind. It seemed there was nothing of the sort. The kind of help available were things such as CV support, Cover Letter support, training, interview practice and group sessions. It all appeared to be things that would require me to be quite well and able to concentrate. I decided to appeal.

I just about got my appeal sent within the one month deadline (you have a month from the date of your decision letter, to appeal, although there is now Mandatory Reconsideration, so the rules may be different now). It took a bit of confusion with what to say, what to send etc, and I ended up sending a supporting letter from my GP, the letter from my Rheumatologist and my Psychotherapist and supporting letters from my parents. Eventually, the appeal went to tribunal. You can read about my tribunal experience here

Unfortunately, my appeal failed; although my points were increased from 15 to 30 (my mental health was actually taken into consideration here!). So, back to the WRAG appointments. I did miss a few, because I was flaring up so easily and frequently. Luckily, my adviser was fairly understanding of that. The next problem arose when my dad's shift pattern changed at work. He was now unable to take me to my appointments. I rang my adviser and tried to negotiate phone appointments, and I explained how we could make it work. I also explained how I was awarded points for descriptors which clearly state I'm unable to travel alone. I got a "No, we don't do that" in return. I asked about speaking to her manager, but was told the manager had said "No" as well. There wasn't any explanation at all. I decided to take the matter further, so I contacted my disability representative, an organisation which advises on the Equality Act, the Mental Health charity, Mind and my MP.

I was given conflicting advice as to what to do. One place said to ask for a statement of reasons as to why the phone appointments were refused, another offered to provide me with an advocate (well, I wouldn't know this person, so what good could it do?), another said to let them know that my illness had worsened, so I could be reassessed (that was true, but I couldn't see myself getting through another WCA) and my MP said he'd speak to the Jobcentre, DWP and the Work Programme provider. I kept everyone updated on my situation and had pretty much convinced myself that nothing would happen, apart from me getting sanctioned for not participating in Work Related Activity (even though I was completely unable to even get to the centre!)

Then, I had a surprising voicemail. The manager of the Work Programme Provider office, left a message; acknowledging my complaint to my MP and his subsequent letter to themselves. I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing when she said that they'd checked my records, I'd been reassessed and was now in the Support Group! She also said my adviser would be in touch to explain what will happen next. I listened to the voicemail at least 3 times to be sure. I decided to keep very quiet about this (hence the lack of blogging on the subject) until the confirmation letter was in my hands. A few days later it was (with a prognosis of 1 year this time), along with the new ESA rate. This has been quite a relief, as now myself and my parents are able to afford to have a cleaner come once a week, for an hour or so. None of us are in a fit state to do much beyond washing dishes and doing laundry (I can barely even do these on my better days now). A lot needed cleaning and help has been needed for a long time.

I know it is extremely stressful, but if you are (wrongly) found fit for work, or you are put in the WRAG when you are not well enough for it, then definitely appeal. It is also a good idea to seek help from your local Citizen's Advice Bureau, as well as any organisations for your disability/ies, any disability advocacy places (especially ones which provide representation at tribunals) and your MP. Bug the heck out of them, it's worth it!

Also, gather evidence. The more, the better. It has to be good quality evidence as well, that can be applied to the descriptors your condition fits. If you find that you fail your appeal, and are kept in the WRAG, then make sure your adviser knows how your conditions limit the sort of Work Related Activity you could do. They may try and push you to do certain activities, but they are not allowed to force you. Bring in evidence for them if needs be. No matter what they say, they do have to provide phone appointments, if it'd be suitable for your condition. If there's still no luck, then contact your MP again. From my experiences, I've found that your MP is usually the one to nudge the WRAG/Work Programme Adviser into actually doing something for you.

I do hope this post has been useful. Please comment or tweet me @Openyoureyes89 if you have any other questions, if there's anything I've explained incorrectly or anything I need to add.











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