“They need to put themselves in other people’s shoes” – How attitudes are stopping benefit claimants from getting on in society

kamsandhu —  September 12, 2014 — Leave a comment

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

“I’ve noticed certain people treat me like a child, so I tend not to tell people,” explains Danielle Aghanian, 31, from Leeds. “The sales advisor asked, ‘Do you work?’ I said no and that I claim disability benefit. I was there with my girlfriend. He then started redirecting the conversation at her.” 

Danielle was trying to get a better deal on her phone contract at Carphone Warehouse. They took her bank card and ran a credit check which was approved. They asked her a series of questions including what disability she had. Danielle responded that she did not have to answer that, as they were not medical professionals.

The sales advisor then said that they did not give anybody with a learning or mental disability a phone contract on the grounds of the “diminished responsibility” a client may have, and refused to grant Danielle a contract.

Unfortunately, Danielle’s experience is not likely a unique one. This week Who Benefits? released research revealing that benefit claimants are receiving verbal and physical abuse as well as restrictions to employment, housing and social involvement.

“15 per cent of those receiving benefits said they had experienced verbal abuse because they are getting support from benefits, while four per cent reported that they had been physically abused. This amounts to nearly 800,000 people facing verbal abuse and 200,000 facing physical abuse for claiming support*. The abuse comes in addition to a raft of challenges that they may already face such as illness and disability, low wages, or caring for a loved one.

“A total of 16 per cent said a landlord or letting agent had refused to let them a property and 18 per cent said they’d been treated less favourably by a potential employer or had difficulty accessing a bank account or financial services because they were claiming benefits.”

This research speaks volumes of the real effects of claimant-bashing media and political discourse which is now unpicking claimants’ ability to get on in society. If claimants are being made more disenfranchised, more unable to get homes, more unlikely to enter employment, simply for being claimants, then our system is seriously hurting itself, and we are risking the isolation and despondency of a whole section of our society.

Danielle sought advice from Mind’s legal line and a solicitor. Carphone Warehouse have been very unhelpful since, going as far as trying to discredit Danielle by remarking in a letter to her that she was behaving erratically, despite witnesses in the shop being able to testify otherwise.

Danielle has noticed other examples of negative attitudes which have perforated the conversations she has with neighbours or old school friends.

“It’s not where I’m living now. It wasn’t abuse. They just turn their noses up at you. As soon as you mention you’re on benefits, they think you’re a sponger. But no, I’m not dossing about.

“One person I know calls me a constant “lady of leisure”. It became a joke, but after a while it was just upsetting.”

Danielle has not worked full time since 2008. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2006 and she also suffers from anxiety and depression. However, Danielle has tried several ways to overcome and manage her illness, whilst still remaining active. Danielle exercises through cycling and playing football and has volunteered at a local horse and donkey sanctuary part time.

In July of this year, Danielle did return to full time work for a month, but this was too much too soon, and Danielle remarks that social pressure did push her to take on the work.

“I applied for 50-60 jobs in the space of about three months and I only got one letter back from any of them to say I was unsuccessful. I know it was because of the gap in my employment.

“But I did get an email asking for a telephone interview, and I thought it’s what my Mum and Dad want. It pushed me to take the job too soon.”

Danielle believes that social media and tabloid coverage of welfare has helped shape some of the attitudes prevalent in the research released this week:

“Some people believe anything, especially if it’s got a picture next to it on social media. A lot of people, I think, are just misinformed. I wouldn’t say it’s people who are uneducated but more people who socially and economically uneducated about what’s going on. ….They need to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

“You’re limited to what you can do. I don’t want to be on benefits for the rest of my life. But I’m glad I live in a country where if you get ill, have a mental breakdown, get cancer, have an accident, then there is help. And the people who say that claimants are spongers, they’re entitled to that help too, and they need to remember that.”

Danielle briefly talks about her decision to stop taking medication two and a half years ago, through fears of the side effects of osteoporosis and over-subscriptions of dosage.

“You get this diagnosis and they write you off. It’s very difficult to live with, but you can manage. But the medication they give you, such heavy doses, and that’s part of the reason people can’t cope and can’t work, because they’re drowning.”

Given this glimpse of insight into her decision, you might be forgiven for skimming over all the strength, time and evaluation it might take to decide to manage this way. You might be forgiven for mistaking the brevity in which Danielle explains this, for a representation of the size of the issue. The medication and care given to those suffering with ill health, physical or mental, is a huge subject full of thousands of questions.

This is an example of the challenges and trials claimants may already face. Unfortunately, these issues receive markedly less coverage in media and politics. It is doubtful claimants require the additional stresses of not being able to secure housing or even a phone contract, neither should they be laden with a general assumption that they must somehow have the time and ability to deal with it because they are out of work. Danielle is an example that people can find  ways of progressing if they are given time, support and possess the confidence to find their own way of coping. Added restrictions to basic social needs and discrimination are detrimental to this.

If the current attitudes and system is making the lives of those who are already facing challenges harder, if our politicians are promoting an ideal that people should be going into work but then preside over a system that inserts greater difficulty for those out of work to put themselves in a position where they can take on employment, then we need to address the madness of that concept.

For anyone in a similar position, Danielle passes on some advice:

“Get in touch with Mind, they’ve been so helpful. Or Re:think, they can give you general advice, and all sorts of specialist advice.

“Know your rights. Speak to citizens advice bureau. If you think you’re being discriminated, speak to someone and see what you could do.

“Don’t feel bad for being on benefits. If you’re poorly, then you need to concentrate on getting yourself better so you can do more.

“I’m lucky I live in this country. I’m gay, and I don’t have to suffer huge discrimination for that. The odd comment, but nothing compared to other places. And the welfare state and the NHS, people are always moaning about both these things but they’re the best things in the bloody world.”

kamsandhu

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kambass@hotmail.co.uk

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