Friday, 9 August 2013

The failings of the Work Capability Assessment; who is to blame?

The last two weeks have not seen the best headlines for Atos healthcare, the company that has had the monopoly on delivering the controversial Work Capability Assessments (WCA) since Employment Support Allowance (ESA) came into existence in 2008. First came the news that, following a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) audit of 400 Atos reports, it was found that 41 per cent of them  were flawed and unacceptable. This was followed by the announcement that from 2014 the DWP would begin inviting bids from other companies to deliver the WCA. Meanwhile, the government has started its fourth independent review into the WCA.
However, would all problems surrounding the WCA be solved if the assessment was delivered in an 'acceptable' manner? Or does the focus on Atos run the risk of ignoring the fundamental problems with the WCA? Given the high success rate of appeals against Atos decisions, and a recent account by an ex-Atos doctor, it would suggest that Atos is the problem. However, organisations, charities, individuals and even parliamentary committees have argued that the real problem lies with the assessment itself, written by the DWP not Atos.
One of the key problems with the assessment’s premise is the focus on the individual’s ability to carry out tasks. At the moment, they measure someone’s ability to complete a particular task in isolation, and they fail to consider the social and environmental barriers to work that people face. For example, the ability to use a keyboard doesn’t mean that you won’t face the barrier of negative attitudes held by employers when trying to find a job. You may be capable of working but unable to do so because of discrimination by employers.
The assessment does include questions about bowel and bladder management, but to receive 15 points (the amount required to qualify for ESA) you must experience at least once a month a loss of bowel or bladder control/substantial leaking from a collecting device. This fails to take into account that many work places will not have accessible bathroom facilities and/or how much distress experiencing such an accident can cause. In addition, this question does not consider that, if you rely on District Nurses for bowel care, it’s unlikely that they will come at a consistent and reliable time which enables you to get to work on time. Disabled people assessed as able to find work should be able to access support to help address the practical barriers they face. However, the majority of support provided comes in the form of attending work focused interviews with people who may not have any knowledge of a disabled person’s impairment. There are also increasing sanctions and mandatory activities being placed on unemployed disabled people assessed as fit for work.
People with Spinal Cord Injury can be subject to the stereotype of being fit and healthy wheelchair users - they may be, they may not be - what is clear is that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is not adequate in assessing people’s varying experiences The fact that it has been shown time and time again that there are great failings with the WCA, and yet the government are repeatedly failing to fully address concerns, suggests that not enough priority is being placed on correcting failures. Whether finding alternative providers to Atos will make a difference to the effectiveness of the WCA remains to be seen. Without urgent change on the actual assessment however, the system will continue to fail in meeting the needs of disabled people.  

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