It’s become one of the toughest encounters Theresa May has had to endure in the general election campaign so far.
“The fat cats keep the money and us lot get nothing,” an incensed Kathy Mohan told the Prime Minister last week. “I want my disability living allowance back!”
Kathy’s fierce challenge sparked debate about the impact of government reforms to disability benefits. These include a new regime of “reviews” which constantly assess a person’s eligibility, and which a report suggests has seen half of all claimants have their money cut or stopped.
The government has said its replacing of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments makes sure support is given to those who need it most.
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “Under PIP 26% of claimants are receiving the highest rate of support, compared to 15% under DLA. Decisions for PIP are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant and their medical specialist, and anyone who disagrees with a decision has the right to appeal.”
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But here three people affected by cuts to their disability benefits reveal how the reforms have impacted their lives.
I found out my application had been denied when I received a letter saying they were going to take away my car. I just collapsed. How could this be happening? People like me are genuine.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had psoriatic arthritis and I’ve always worked despite that. I used to work in trauma and crisis management at a university and I’d be on call and I’d be out in the middle of the night for students who have attempted suicide or parents of bereaved students.
I struggled with my health but I carried on. For many years I was working full-time in that role and as a counsellor in a private GPs surgery and I taught counselling and did voluntary work at the same time - as well as raising five children alone after my marriage broke up.
I have literally juggled everything and kept things going. Then my condition worsened.
In 2006, I was also diagnosed with Sjögren syndrome, which is similar to lupus and attacks all the moisture producing glands and it was attacking my lungs. It soon began impacting me much worse and I was really struggling at work. Then I applied for Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
Because of my conditions I was put on chemo, immunosuppressant drugs and steroids - this made me ill alongside all my other symptoms and affected my liver badly.
I was forced to take medical retirement, which was absolutely devastating. Because of Sjögren’s affecting my lungs, I’ve now only got 50 percent lung capacity and because it is now attacking the muscles in my legs, I live in constant chronic pain and it’s difficult to walk.
But I thought to myself I have to do something. I timed it with my youngest going from primary to secondary school and I moved to Spain to see if I could benefit from the warmer weather there - and still be able to work and provide for myself.
But two weeks later I was taken seriously ill - I had sepsis and nearly died. I had to return so my family could care for me.
I’ve been back in Britain since 2012, trying to do the best I can. In December 2016 I was asked to do an assessment for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
It was unbelievable that they didn’t have any disabled parking at the centre in Bristol - the assessor had to come to me.
During the assessment I was really confident that I was going to do well because I’m really genuine, open and honest.
A lot of people said to me ‘you ought to watch them they manipulate things’. I thought no, that won’t be the case.
When I found out that my application had been declined, I collapsed.
They assessment suggested that as I get out of bed in the morning, I must be OK. I felt that my positive attitude has gone against me. They noted my use of social media in their assessment.
So then I went through the reconsideration. My consultant wrote the most powerful support letter which when I read it I wept. It was like reading my future and what I’ll have to face.
At the same time, I thought this was strong evidence, that they’ll see it and understand. I sent it all off. I didn’t hear anything, and for weeks I didn’t sleep properly.
I rang up again last week and I said I haven’t heard anything - I was told a decision was made last Tuesday. They just said: ‘You’ve been denied again.’
They’ve stopped the payments and they’ll take my car in June.
I just think how many disabilities and illnesses does one have to have before you are awarded?
Trying to live on a very small occupational pension isn’t easy. I couldn’t have a car without PIP and my car is my legs. I need the reliability of a newer car. I know I’m one of hundreds of thousands and I think that’s the main motivation for sharing my story. This is truth of what happens to genuine, hard-working disabled people out there.
I really didn’t want to have to share any of this - it’s personal and it’s private. But the fear I have for what is happening to society and the people that are dying and those who are committing suicide because of what they’re doing, I feel I have a moral obligation to share my story.
I want to show those who are thinking of voting Tory that this is not about catching people who are scroungers.
I’ve worked hard all my working life, I’ve raised children with the strongest work ethic ever, and this is happening to me. It is unfair. It is unjust. It has to be stopped.
You could say that as a disabled person, if you haven’t got an advocate fighting for you as a child, if you haven’t got strong parents that will fight for you in your early years, then it’s really difficult to keep fighting as an adult.
I think that my mum really engrained that into me, that I have to fight for every little bit that’s due to me, whether it be benefits or jobs or whatever.
I have to prove myself 110% beyond everyone else.
I was born dangerously premature in 1970 - babies born at 26 weeks just didn’t survive then, but I did. I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy before I was one years old. I didn’t walk until I was six - and my parents fought for every bit I could have.
In 1979 I was given a lifetime award of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) - it meant my parents could buy and run a car to help get me about. In December 2015, the government took it away.
I got a letter saying I was being assessed to move onto the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). At the time, I was going through gallstones, I nearly died from a ruptured gallbladder, a ruptured diaphragm, and lots of other complications. I was in a really really bad way.
Then I had all this to cope with. So I filled in all the forms, did exactly what I was asked to do and sent it all off. In the March, I was asked to go to Southampton to go and see them in a tribunal situation and argue my case as to why I should still keep my Motability car.
Bearing in mind that I am one of the fortunate ones, I’m not in a wheelchair because I refuse to go in one. I’m a stubborn cow and at 10 years old I was told I would be in a wheelchair and I thought ‘No, I’m not doing that, never doing that’.
So I don’t use walking aides purely because I think that if I do that it would make me physically weaker and then unable in the long run to do less. I think I’ve probably been penalised for that.
I’d just had my gallbladder out so they came to see me in my own home, they did all the assessments and they took the car away from me and a lower rate of the DLA I had.
Everything turned upside down. Without a car, I couldn’t travel to work as a history supply teacher all over Dorset and Hampshire.
My mum had died in 2010 so I didn’t have the support from her that I’d always had before. I knew I had to fight it. I spoke to lots of other people who had gone through the process and got advice from them.
Then I went to apply for a reassessment of my situation, a friend of a friend was a solicitor who helped write my letter. I explained why I needed the car - to travel to work which could be local or further away.
In time, they came back and reinstated my car and some of my PIP. This means I can now continue to be a supply teacher, this means my children can go out with me - I take them to history talks and historical sites.
It means I can have a life and experience similar to other families. If I’m not doing supply teaching, I’m writing or I’m going to talks and updating my subject knowledge. I’m not just sat at home watching Jeremy Kyle, I have a brain in my head, I’m quite capable of talking and making a difference to others.
The number of schools I have been in to, some of the most badly behaved students see me, and I tell them a little bit about why I’m like this, and they get it - they open doors for me, they talk about the things they struggle with, difficulties, social problems. I can make a difference to these kids. That’s what this money allows me to do.
But my lifetime award has gone, there is no DLA anymore. I live in fear of having to go through all this again soon.
The only way people like me will have a voice is if we register to vote, get out and vote and get this government out before they completely destroy the infrastructure and the social standing of people in this country.
Apparently I need to get off my arse and get a job - but I’ve always been a hard worker.
I left school at 16, and walked straight into a factory job for the summer, packing pickled beetroot and toffee apples of all things.
It was a decent wage and let me save for college, and before long I was studying graphic design with an evening job to tie me over.
In time, I went to Bradford for university and studied animation. I worked hard there too, one year with a summer job testing water in a lab, another cleaning offices before heading to class.
I eventually graduated with a BSc Hons in Computer Animation and Special Effects. Two weeks after leaving uni, I started working in a call centre to earn enough money to travel to interviews.
I was luckily given plenty of time off to go to interviews all over country and America. I was successful and won an internship in San Diego - I was thrilled. I was still working in the call centre and saving up when suddenly I fell sick and collapsed at work.
I was eventually diagnosed with a permanent migraine and at the time I received Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
The severity of my condition has meant I’ve been too sick to work since.
Then my health got worse, I developed several allergies, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).
But then DLA switched to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and I lost my mobility allowance. It’s money that would mean I could afford aides and modifications to my home to make it safer and let me be more independent.
I’ve had the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) say I’ve been denied the payment due to a lack of proof I have treatment for PTSD, despite evidence I am seeing a psychiatrist and take anti-anxiety medication.
I fell over twice in a PIP interview due to my balance/mobility issues, yet there was no mention in the final report.
I’ve basically been made to feel like a liar and a fraud at every turn. It’s so draining.
I ended up getting so stressed and ill trying to get more documents and evidence from medical professionals to prove my case that I ended up having a breakdown and my mental health was a total mess.
It was so bad that I missed the deadline for applying for a tribunal, which is why I’m now having to start all over again from scratch
I would give anything to have the energy to work full time again, hell, at this point even part time.
One 15 minute interview on one day is no way of proving how a condition impacts my life on a daily basis.
My doctors, therapists and supporters are the ones that deal with me, they’re the ones who witness it.
I’d just like to see common sense, communication and compassion. Is that too much to ask?
Sonia’s, Philippa’s and Cat’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Disability benefits in numbers
11m - number of people living with a disability, long-term illness, or impairment in Britain
1 in 5 - people have a disability
19% - of families with one disabled person live in poverty
0.5% - rate of fraud for the Disability Living Allowance
Source: HM Government, Papworth Trust