It’s deeply shaming to have to prove to the state you’re still disabled

Cruel benefit changes mean reassessment over and over again for blind people, paraplegics and many others – all fed by the myth about ‘scroungers cheating the system’

ou know the one about the scrounging disability-benefit claimant: that woman with the limp who has always got the latest designer handbag; the unemployed guy across the road who has been given a “free car” by the state. Everyone’s heard a version of it. Mainly because certain politicians and the rightwing media have been peddling it for years.

The cultural shift against social security sharpened considerably in 2013. That was when, as part of the abolition of DLA – disability living allowance – the Conservatives pledged to scrap “lifetime awards” of the benefit: essentially, what enables some disabled people to have indefinite help for care or mobility needs.

The policy played straight into people’s greatest fears about the benefit system: that not only are there hordes of people with disabilities living off taxpayers’ money, but they’re receiving all that cash practically unchecked. As the myth has it, it’s just a case of filling in a few forms, complaining about a bad back, and free money arrives every month for life. As the then work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, put it to explain the policy change, disabled people on lifetime awards are “just allowed to fester”.

Three years later, in the final stages of the mass re-testing of DLA’s replacement, PIP – personal independence payments – we’re now deep into the consequence of this myth: disabled people who had been told their support was for life suddenly being forced through reassessment. And in many cases seeing their support pulled away.

People like Phil Spanswick: born with shortened limbs, three fingers on one hand and four on the other, as a result of the thalidomide scandal. The 54-year-old – who is unable to shower, get dressed, or use the oven or washing machine without help – had been on a lifetime award of high-rate DLA since the 1980s. Spanswick’s disability will quite obviously never improve, but he was forced to go to a PIP reassessment. The woman who assessed him “was 21”, says Spanswick, “and had trained as a paramedic, and asked me three times how I had got my disability and what age was I when I got it”. He had his benefit downgraded: a cut of almost £40 a week.

Phil Spanswick
Phil Spanswick, a thalidomide victim, has had his benefit cut by almost £40 a week. Photograph: Tom Pilston for the Guardian

Or Carly Tait, a Paralympian born with cerebral palsy, who this week returned from competing for Great Britain as a wheelchair racer in Rio. Tait has been on a lifetime high-rate award of DLA for mobility since she was a teenager but had to go through a medical for PIP this year. She had her benefit bumped down to the standard rate and was subsequently told she would lose her specialist car. Tait told me that when she asked the assessor why she had to be tested when she had previously been given a lifetime award, “He said ‘there might be medical advances’. There’s no cure for cerebral palsy. I’m never going to get any better.”

Logic has no place in Britain’s new benefit system. We are firmly in hysteria mode, where it is seen as prudent to use taxpayers’ money to check whether a disabled person’s neurology or genetic makeup has changed. There are no exemptions or “good sense” limits to this. The re-testing of PIP claims means, in practice, blind people, paraplegics and those with Down’s syndrome will be put through reassessment: forced to provide information about their disability that the government already has and cannot possibly have changed.

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