Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alas, poor Roomba

In November 2007, Steve and I purchased a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. In our household, it is probably the most-used domestic appliance after the kettle and the microwave. Certainly it gets used much more frequently than any of my traditional vacuum cleaners ever have (even pre-disability - I was never a great housekeeper), the happy result being that when I hit the deck I am able to just relax until I'm able to stand up, rather than lying there trying not to breathe too deeply for fear of inhaling several months' accumulation of crumbs and dirt. It's that independence thing again. If I think the carpets are too filthy to lie around on, I can just push the button and clean them rather than having to beg and pester and nag and cajole and use up favours to get someone else to do it.

Our Roomba is now very nearly three years old. And he is starting to feel the strain. He was absolutely fine until about a month ago, then one day he worked for about ten seconds and then stopped and sang his sad little song of woe. Slightly concerned, I dismantled his user-serviceable parts (oo-er) and extracted several handfuls of fluff from mechanism areas where fluff should not be. One charge cycle later, and he was fighting fit again.

A week later the same thing happened. This time Steve dismantled him rather more thoroughly and removed another handful of fluff from hard-to-reach areas. One charge cycle later, and he was cleaning the hallway with a smile. On his little non-existent face. You know what I mean.

Now we're at the stage where every time we want him to clean, he runs for anything up to a minute before stopping. Then he sings the sad little song of woe and flashes his little red light, then we reset the battery and mess about with the charger and then he cleans one room, gets back on his charging base, but still sings the little song of woe the next time we try to use him.

I fear he is on his last legs. Wheels. Whatever. He's not quite ready for that great WEEE recycling plant in the sky, but (shhh) if he was claiming DLA it would probably be under the Special Rules.

Amazingly, a Roomba 560 (same model) seems to be currently £300 in the UK (or would be if it was in stock). That's particularly upsetting as we only paid £250 for this one when we bought it three years ago! I say 'only', I mean relatively...

If anyone happens to have any bright ideas, I'm open to suggestions. My instinct says to replace the battery, but a new battery is about £60 which is rather too much for something that may or may not solve the problem. So it looks like we'll be pleading and coaxing him into occasional functionality until after the wedding and putting "new Roomba" at the top of the registry.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Abandoned claims

Woke up this morning to see that a certain right-wing rag has surpassed itself in the propaganda it chooses to spout about ESA.

I'm not going to link to it because it will only upset me and every reader.

The headline asserted that 75% of those who claim ESA are found "fit to work".

This was then broken down that 75% of those who claim ESA were either found "fit to work" or abandoned their claims before testing was complete. The article did not split these figures. It did not differentiate between the Support (never likely to be able to work) group and the Work-Related Activity (may, with help, be able to do some jobs) groups of ESA - from reading the article it seems that they are only counting those who meet the Support group test criteria as "genuine". It proposed that the abandonment of a claim meant that the claimant was clearly "trying it on".

Legitimate reasons why an ESA claim may be started and then abandoned:
  • The claimant dies.

  • The claimant gets better, be it a miracle or a new treatment or being bumped up the waiting list for surgery or getting private treatment.

  • The claimant, having lost their job, is offered support and a place to stay by their parents or their children. They decide to abandon their claim and re-start it once their move is complete.

  • The claimant looks at the highly personal questions on the form and says "you know what, I'll never be this desperate for money, prostitution is less demeaning."

  • The claimant wins an insurance or compensation payout that enables them to survive without benefits.

  • Due to their condition, the claimant is unable to understand the importance of filling in the form or unable to remember that the form needs doing.

  • Due to their condition, the claimant is unable to fill out the forms - perhaps they have a brain injury or learning disability and cannot read and/or write, perhaps they have issues with their hands and cannot physically hold a pen, perhaps they have a mental health condition that causes panic attacks every time they approach the form.

  • Due to their condition, the claimant is unable to access support to fill in the forms - for instance they are unable to go out, they do not yet have formal Social Services support, and their CAB is overstretched with permanently engaged phone lines (I have personal experience of urgently needing to get to the CAB but having to wait until support is available).

  • The claimant completed the form, but due to their condition, they are unable to travel to and from the medical examination centre alone, and they are unable to secure help and/or funding to allow them to attend. Because their level of impairment does not exist until ATOS say it does, this is not a valid excuse for non-attendance. (I had this issue with my DLA a few years ago).

  • The claimant is sitting at home with the heating off, desperately waiting to hear back from the DWP about their claim, which the DWP has lost.

If it was any other publication (I hesitate to use the term "newspaper") I would be shocked and appalled by the deliberate lies and misinformation being used to attack disabled people. Unfortunately, I'm getting used to it, and so is everyone else, and all these little drops of poison are being allowed to drip on into the public consciousness unchallenged.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

If you want to imagine the future...

In my last post I spoke about how, thanks to my particularly fortunate circumstances, I should not be too severely affected by the proposed cuts in the Coalition's Comprehensive Spending Review.

I wrote that in the same frame of mind as a parent might hug their warm, safe, living children after hearing about a fatal school bus accident. It's okay. I'm okay. The bad things happened to someone else. It's terrible, but it was someone else.

That emotion dealt with, it's time to acknowledge that I am not so unaffected as I would like to believe. This is difficult for me to post as it involves hard truths not just about my condition but also my business and my relationship, but Bendygirl's video has persuaded me that it needs to be said.

Hard truth #1 is that I am dependent, physically and financially, on my partner. I contribute to the household in the ways that I can, but ultimately, he's providing for me.

I work, yes. I worked for a company for just over two years and now I've been self-employed for about eight months. I have a growing base of satisfied customers, I pay National Insurance, I will be doing a tax return, and each month, the business expenses are met with a bit left over. Go me!

Unfortunately, much as I hate to admit it, hard truth #2 is that the bit left over isn't a very big bit, and nor were my earnings while I was PAYE. It's always been well under £8,000 per year. I simply can't work very many hours and I'm not in a position to raise my rates.

So the long and short of it is that if my relationship fails, meaning that I am no longer housed and supported by someone else, I will have to wind up the business and seek help from the state until such time as I am able to find employment that pays enough for me to live on without demanding more than I am physically able to give.

A lovely big squishy truth now - my relationship is fine. That's why we're planning a wedding. Excuse me while I cuddle that truth for a little while.

I do feel, though, that part of what makes the relationship fine is that we both know we could leave at any time. I'm not with him just because he can pay the bills. We started our relationship in the knowledge that we can both survive as single adults - we choose to be together, every single day. It's not nice to think of exit strategies, but at least I knew that if something unthinkable happened - for example, if he were to hit me or to announce that he was leaving - I would be able to get a taxi to a friend's house and then start phoning Social Services for support. I would be able to claim money for food on an emergency basis, I would have a few hundred quid in savings to see me through for the first week or so, I would have help to apply for income replacement benefits, and thanks to my DLA status I would have to be put in appropriate accommodation.

This is no longer the case.

The Coalition are aiming to reduce the number of DLA claimants by 20% (600,000 people). That's all very well, but the rate of fraud on that particular benefit is just 0.5% (about 15,000 people), which means that there are 585,000 people who are legitimately claiming, whose conditions have not changed, and yet who are going to get kicked off a benefit which is frankly a lifeline. Believe me when I say the bar is already set quite high for who can and cannot get DLA - it's not awarded for minor illnesses. Remember the official disability facts and figures? There are 11 million disabled people in the UK and yet only 3 million of them get DLA. Long-time readers will remember all the trouble I had with my DLA appeal a couple of years ago. Spending the best part of a year trying to fight the system while also trying to cope without the money. It's not to be had for the asking.

(It should also be reiterated that this shifting of the goalposts purely a cost-cutting exercise. DLA has nothing to do with whether a person works or not. Many DLA claimants are in work and paying tax. In many cases, it is their award of DLA that allows them to buy the care and equipment that enables them to continue working.)

If I were to lose my DLA, it's not just the money that would disappear. All sorts of things go with it - daft stuff you wouldn't necessarily think of, like help getting your water if there's an emergency and your street is put on a standpipe, or eligibility for things like Disabled Person's Railcards.

Let's be positive, though, and assume I keep it. Next, I'd need income replacement benefit. This would be ESA, the benefit that is being phased in to replace the old Incapacity Benefit. ESA divides into two groups. One is for people who are never likely to be able to work - mostly people with terminal illnesses with only a few months left to live. This group get full and unconditional benefit for as long as they are ill (in other words, until they die or a miracle occurs). It's a small group - currently about 6% of claimants. The other group is for those who, with support, would be capable of some work, and their receipt of the benefit is dependent on them fulfilling "work-related activities" such as voluntary placements or work experience placements...

Actually that's not quite true. There's a third group for ESA. The third group is those very definitely disabled people whose conditions don't quite fit the boxes. Those with fluctuating conditions. Those who would be considered capable of "mobilising" fifty metres if they had an appropriate wheelchair, even if they do not in fact have such a wheelchair, nor any way of obtaining one. These people are put onto normal Jobseekers' Allowance with all the hoops and hurdles thereof, and drop out of all disability monitoring at the DWP. No specialist support. No reasonable adjustments. Just sanctions if you do not sign on or if you do not apply for enough jobs.

Assume, then, that I would get either work-related activity ESA, or that I would be discarded onto JSA. Finally, I have to find somewhere to live, and this is where it gets really tricky.

First of all, as a person under 35 I would only be eligible for a room in a shared house. Sharing a house is a tricky prospect for a disabled person. You need the people you live with to be able to understand about your disability. You need them to understand, even when drunk, that your mobility aids and assistive items aren't their toys and that you really do need a proper sleep schedule. You need to be able to get help to fulfil your share of the chores, and Social Services do not provide help with housework for people who live with "able-bodied adults". I wouldn't last five minutes.

Of course, you also might need certain adaptations to the property. That's expensive and I doubt councils will fund much of it. So maybe that would mean not having to enter a house-share because it's not physically appropriate. Which means we're looking at temporary accommodation in (a) a hospital or (b) a hotel with an accessible room. It could happen, but it'd be expensive. Perhaps a better solution would be care homes? I don't require nursing care, but it would be a room, and it would be accessible, and the other people would understand my situation.

Heh. Well, yes. That's a solution. It's already a solution for many people. Live in a care home. They remove all your income replacement benefit, and they remove all of your DLA care component, and then they give you £20 a week of "pocket money" to cover anything that's not basic food and bills. Shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, makeup? Pocket money. Clothes and shoes? Pocket money. A laptop computer to enable you to communicate with the world? Pocket money. These things could be considered luxuries, but would YOU employ someone without them?

DLA mobility component is different. People can use that however they see fit. Some people hand it all over and get a leased Motability adapted vehicle. Some people use it to hire or purchase a mobility scooter. Some people use it to cover the difference between what the NHS will pay for a wheelchair, and the price of a wheelchair they can actually use. Some people pool it with others in their care homes to fund an accessible minibus. Some people keep it and use it for taxi fares so that they can do things like, ooh, go into town and sign on or do Work Related Activity as part of their ESA/JSA requirements.

The Coalition intend to axe DLA mobility component for people in care homes. Adapted cars, taxi fares, and in many cases, wheelchairs, GONE. When challenged, the government said that local authorities should be providing transport and daytime activities for disabled people in care homes. These would be the same local authorities who have been told to reduce their spending by 25%...

So if the Coalition's plans are successful, then for the next seven years at least (until I am 35), my choices are to stay with Steve, or to attempt to bounce on a welfare safety net that will be so small as to be negligible. Can I still honestly say that we live together out of choice, when my best case breakup scenario will be either virtual imprisonment in a care home, or living out of a suitcase in a cheap hotel? Ironically, the additional pressure this puts on my relationship only increases the chance of it turning sour. And since neither of those situations are going to enable me to pick up the threads of my life and move towards getting back into employment, it makes me even more likely to remain benefit-dependent for longer.

I say again, for myself as much as for the people reading this, that my relationship with Steve is stable and loving and going nowhere. In that respect I am more lucky than many disabled people who find themselves increasingly dependent on their partners. But one thing you learn with adulthood-acquired disability is that life can change in an instant - I'm scared that the safety net which caught me once, and which I may rely on to catch me again, is being removed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I want to post about the cuts made in the Comprehensive Spending Review yesterday.

I'm not doing so well at the moment, so for the sake of spoons this is going to be short and based on my own experiences rather than linking to statistics and documentation. That in itself is part of what makes the cuts to disabled people so underhanded - we're not all able to fight back in a planned, structured and comprehensive manner.

Personally, at this point in my life, I probably won't be too badly affected for a couple of years. Oh, there are things that I should have that are now disappeared into the long grass, but my extremely fortunate circumstances mean I am not being thrust into heat-or-eat poverty. I know just how lucky I am and I know many others will not be so lucky.

What happened to me was not unusual. One week, I was a reasonably healthy, reasonably fit, reasonably bright young woman with a reasonably well-paid job, reasonable promotion prospects, living in a small but reasonably pleasant bedsit flat and, all in all, living a reasonable life. The following week, I was being sent home from work with what was assumed to be 'flu. Three months and half a dozen failed attempts to return to work later, I was being prepared to accept that my illness might be rather more long-term, and three months after that, my work contract was ended and I was obliged to claim welfare benefits to survive.

I did survive. It wasn't without difficulty, what savings I had were eroded, and I don't know how long I would have kept it up - let's not pretend we lived like princes under New Labour - but I had practical support, an intact National Insurance record, and the wherewithal to challenge the DWP when they cocked up their own rules, and so here I am. I landed on the welfare safety net, but I bounced, and a few years later with a lot of help from loved ones I was able to start earning again.

However I feel very sorry for anyone who goes through that same not-unusual scenario with ESA (thanks to Labour for that) and the cuts proposed by the Conservative/Liberal alliance yesterday. I would not have survived.

The harshest cut? Removing DLA mobility allowance from disabled people who live in residential homes. This is the money that goes towards the difference between what the NHS will pay for a wheelchair and what a suitable wheelchair actually costs. This is the money that pays for taxis to visit friends and family. This is the money that residents pool together to get an accessible minibus for their home so that they can have trips out. I do not understand the rationale for removing it.