Atos and the UK Government

This makes me so mad I can’t see straight. As folks will no doubt know, the UK government has outsourced disability benefit assessments to a company called Atos – ironically, they are one of the paralympic sponsors. Atos have targets for removing benefits. This is in spite of the fact that according to the government’s own figures, disability benefits are only overpaid by 2% through fraud and error (0.8% customer error, 0.5% DWP error, and 0.7% fraud). The assessment record is shameful. Cancer patients have been pronounced fit to work; there is no proper provision for fluctuating conditions; ;there have been deaths from suicide, stress, and exhaustion brought about by dealing with the new benefits system. Here’s just one, of many, many examples of an Atos benefits assessment:

My friend Polly has a severe form of Crohn’s disease. She’s been given countless different medications, and operations to remove parts of her small intestine. In fact, her Crohn’s is so resistant to the strongest medications and surgery available that she was referred to an experimental chemotherapy and stem cell transplant medical trial. If Crohn’s were a video game, she is playing it on hardest difficulty, with no cheat codes and a broken controller.

Atos sent a doctor to assess whether she could re-qualify for benefits. On arrival, he told her that he’d never heard of Crohn’s Disease. Forgive me for being pedantic, but a doctor who hasn’t heard of Crohn’s Disease isn’t a doctor. That’s like a dentist who hasn’t heard of gums, or a plumber that’s never heard of pipes… I had heard rumours that Atos doctors mark people down if their illness isn’t visible. Which seemed ludicrous even for Atos. As if the only three kind of illnesses are eczema, nosebleeds and an unfortunate haircut. Cancer? Look mate, unless you’ve got cancer of the face, we’re not interested. Get back to work! Sadly, Polly has confirmed the rumour. One of the very few notes the Atos doctor wrote was “No obvious external signs of generalised systemic disease found”. Because for most people, their intestines are an external organ… we suddenly seem to have forgotten the past 150 years of medical and social progress, and are instead guessing whether someone is ill based on whether they can raise their arms, and walk five metres. (Those are genuinely the only two physical tests Polly’s Atos doctor used to see if she was disabled.)

Note, as Zoe Williams and others have forcefully argued, the fact that it’s Atos conducting these assessments shouldn’t lead us to think that this is their fault. There is, hopefully, a special place in hell reserved for those doing such dirty work, but Atos are employed by the UK government, using assessment criteria the government has devised.

6 thoughts on “Atos and the UK Government

  1. One of the things that frustrates me most about the benefit-slashing campaign is the way in which it wilfully manipulates data. There are two talking points that these people keep coming back to:

    (i) Disabled people report better overall wellbeing if they maintain full- or part-time work
    (ii) For many of the people currently receiving benefits, there are people with similar disabilities in full- or part-time work

    Are both (i) and (ii) true? Yep. Does that mean that the system is full of benefit scrounging scum who need to have their assess kicked back into gainful employment? Of course not.

    Like political rhetoric does in so many other areas, focus on (i) and (ii) is attempting to turn what is essentially a social problem into an issue of individual responsibility and motivation. If disabled people only weren’t so *lazy* they’d be able to have jobs! Just look at the paralympians! You don’t see them complaining. . .etc.

    I think it’s definitely true that we should try to get more disabled people into employment. And I also think it’s true that at least some disabled people who think they can’t work probably can. But the problem isn’t disabled people. The problem is how society treats disabled people. We need to focus on making jobs more accessible, making it easier to retrain and shift careers, making schedules and working venues more flexible. We need to focus on changing *attitudes* about disability, so that it’s not so very easy for disabled people to feel that they’re useless or broken, with nothing to offer society. We need to change the medicalization of disability – which makes it so easy for those with chronic illnesses to be sidelined and marginalized.

    What we really really *don’t* need to do is place further blame and stigma on an already blamed and stigmatized group. That helps exactly nothing.

    [whew] Rant over.

  2. nice rant, and thanks for the post – i couldn’t have imagined something as ridiculous as this (outside the US or Thatcher’s Britain) …. but the world is in rapid regression, so why not.

    in the case of conditions like chron’s, or many of the other autoimmune, rheumatic, connective tissue, or neuropathic disorders, there is the issue of being periodically unable to work; there is a lack of work place flexibility that accommodates a seasonal need to work less hours (winter months when inflammation increases), or periods when medication or personal troubles change the state of ones health, temporarily impacting work capacity.

    not working may be preferable if one cannot sustain employment through a prolonged flareup with an illness that does not allow full recovery between flareups. in that situation, work becomes part of the problem due to the stress … along with Atos and a conservative government.

    basically, the disability schemes and employment contracts are not flexible in a way that fits with what cannot be controlled – the manifestations of chronic, debilitating illness. (two steps forward, one step back … and a slide for good measure).

  3. Hadn’t heard of Crohn’s disease? Jesus wept, there was a joke about it on The Thick of It this week (not making fun, I hasten to add), it’s not exactly unheard of even within the general population. A new low for Atos. There’s also the fact that even for the people who might be fit to work, the stigma they might face as a disabled person trying to get a job isn’t taken into account.

  4. I am dumbstruck: never heard of Crohn’s Disease? What kind of ‘doctor’ was this? Heck, my eye doctor has heard of it.

    I think one of the terrible things about this particular condition is that many of the standard symptoms are regarded as ‘icky’ bathroom stuff. Pity the poor person who has to tell everyone in the office that s/he might need to run to the bathroom frequently, or stay there for long periods of time. Or, imagine there are only stall-style bathrooms when one has to vomit repeatedly.

    I have a student with Crohn’s and he felt he had to explain to me why he might need to leave the room with frequency during flare ups. I assured him that even I – no medical doctor – understood what Crohn’s is and that was all he needed to tell me.

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