Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Letter to DWP and Julie Elliot MP (from ACT NOW North East Co-ordinator Terry Rutherford)

Dear Ms Singh,

I am writing to you in response to a letter that was sent to Julie Elliot MP from Elaine Richardson, Acting District Manager Jobcentre plus, South of Tyne and Wear, following my contact with Julie as not only a constituent but also as a supporter of the ACT NOW Campaign of which I am now coordinator of the North East Region.

I believe that the Work Capability Assessment does not reflect the complexities of autism. In order to qualify for ESA in a work-related activity group the adult being assessed has to gain more than 15 points. The proposed change to the descriptors will have a detrimental impact on people with an autistic spectrum condition. The descriptors take no account of communication difficulties, verbal or non-verbal, due to mental impairment.

Making oneself understood is only covered by a physical descriptor, descriptor 6. Unless the guidance clearly states that this must also cover people who find it difficult to communicate due to a non-physical disability such as autism or a learning disability, how are these needs going to be recognised during the assessment?

Understanding and comprehension impairments are covered only due to a sensory impairment under descriptor 7, where the emphasis is on aids used by those with hearing or visual impairment. The wording of the descriptor itself is vague: it is based on an ability to complete two actions in the context of planning, organisation, and problem-solving. People on the autistic spectrum (even those who are deemed to be very high functioning and have university qualifications) often struggle with planning, organisation and problem-solving.

I am also very concerned about descriptor 17 regarding someone who might frequently have uncontrollable episodes of aggression or exhibit challenging behaviour, particularly when under pressure or in an environment with which they are really not familiar. This sort of behaviour would be unreasonable in any workplace.  Someone with these issues cannot realistically be assessed as not having limited capability for work.

Regarding the issue of training for the ATOS assessors, not everyone who has autism has an associated learning disability. This is something that is all too often overlooked when training is being carried out. Even where there is a learning disability present the autism will  play a large part in how that adult will present overall. There are many stereotypical misconceptions about autism banded about by many, including professionals. The ability to access vital disability benefits should not be based on stereotypes. Autism is a vast spectrum and it is difficult to believe that the complexities of such a vast spectrum can be successfully learnt in a self directed learning module in the form of a DVD.

I understand that the assessors themselves do not make any decisions regarding benefit entitlement. However the assessment tool which is being used to measure the functional capacity of adults with autism is flawed and it will be impossible for an informed decision to be reached. I have read a letter which was sent to ACT NOW by Chris Grayling which states that any evidence which is provided for adults with autism by GPs or consultants will be regarded as secondary evidence. Mr Grayling explains that GPs, consultants and medical professionals generally have not received the relevant training to enable them to assess the level of disability and how it is impacting on that person’s life. Yet people are being asked to accept that an ATOS assessor who has received their training via a self directed learning training module is able to score a person who has a complex condition like autism?

I understand that while some adults are being invited to bring someone with them when they attend their WCA the person who is accompanying them is often not allowed to speak. In fact I am aware of one case where the adult who had very limited communication abilities was told to stop crying and to look directly at the assessor and answer their questions. This is not what ACT NOW had in mind when they made a national call for advocator communicators.

I am also very concerned about the current review being carried out by Professor Harrington. It is my understanding that the leading charities (the National Autistic Society, Mencap and Mind) have now unanimously dissociated themselves from the internal report. This does not bode well for the recommendations in Professor Harington’s report which is due on in the summer.

Yours sincerely,

Terry Rutherford

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