ESA SOS: Another day, another attack on disabled people

The government are sneaking through major changes to how disabled people are assessed, writes Sue Marsh.

On January 28th, 2013 the UK government is due to make a set of changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the flawed ‘fitness to work’ test which assesses whether sick and disabled people can get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA): a benefit designed to help and support very unwell or profoundly disabled people into work.

Although these changes have been advertised as small ‘amendments’, they will in fact have a huge impact on the way people’s illnesses and disabilities are assessed. Many vulnerable people’s needs will suddenly be able to be overlooked or ignored, meaning they could end up losing the support they desperately need to manage their conditions.

Hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people across Britain need your help to fight these changes!


In the fitness to work test, your needs are assessed by a ‘healthcare professional’ employed by the French private company ATOS. This assessor doesn’t just need to look at your current difficulties. For example, they can also imagine how using an aid (e.g. a wheelchair) might improve your ability to work and make a judgement based on that – without even asking your opinion!

However, soon this “imaginary test” will be able to be used for many more aids (including guide dogs and false limbs!). This means that soon thousands more people could be judged as fit to work, without being consulted, on the basis of an “imaginary” aid they don’t own or may not be able to use!

It gets worse.

Even if returning to work may clearly put you at risk, these changes will mean you can still lose your disability benefit – as long as the assessor believes that trying a new therapy or treatment might reduce that risk. There’s no need for evidence the treatment will help: you will lose support either way, making it much harder to manage if the treatment doesn’t work as hoped – let alone if it ends up making things worse.

Imagine Bert, who suffers from severe schizophrenia, but is found fit to work and made to take behavioural therapy in the hope of improving his condition.

He will lose his disability benefit, without the assessor having to look at several vital questions:

How hard it would be for Bert to contact a psychiatrist? How long would an NHS appointment take to organize? Are there private options in his area – and could he afford them if so? What if the therapy doesn’t work, or takes a long time to adjust to?

Chris Fry, solicitor and managing partner at Unity Law, says:

“How individuals are assessed to receive ESA could give rise to large numbers of legal claims being made against them. These changes immediately puts the government at risk of breaching article 9 of the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights, which preserves an individual’s right to ‘thought, conscience and religion’.

“The new rules provide for an individual to be refused ESA if they do not take any medication or accept an aid which Doctors believe could aid their condition. Essentially, they can impose a financial penalty on individuals who refuse treatment on religious. Given the very recent decision involving the Christian, Nadia Eweida, and the court upholding her right to wear a cross – the government is on very rocky ground with these changes.”

If the government’s rule changes go through, people like Bert who are desperate to work will find it nearly impossible to get an accurate assessment, affecting the quality of their support and actively preventing their efforts to get back into work.


The government is also trying to change the way people’s conditions are assessed by dividing health problems into two separate boxes: ‘physical’ and ‘mental’. When looking at what tasks people can do, only the ‘physical half’ of the test will apply to those with physical disabilities. The same goes for the effects of treatment: for eg, if you’re taking mental health medication, only mental health side-effects will be looked at.

This completely fails to understand the way many disabilities and illnesses can lead to both physical and mental effects. This is also the case for many common treatments – such as those for schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Think of Emily, who suffers severe, chronic pain because of nerve damage to her leg.

Emily is among the 49% of chronic pain sufferers who also suffer depression as a result of continuous pain. An assessor may see Emily as able to do some work as long as she takes strong painkillers for the rest of her life, meaning she could pass the ‘fitness’ test. Yet the painkillers may not deal with the depression caused by her condition. Painkillers have also often been shown to affect people’s wakefulness and decision-making.

So taking the medication may affect Emily’s ability to do a job in a completely new way – yet because these new problems are cognitive, they would not need to be looked at by the assessor when making their decision!

Pretending the effects of illnesses and disabilities can be separated in this way goes against all medical practice. Going even further, and using this method to ignore sick and disabled people’s needs, is at best hopeless policy, and at worst deliberate cruelty. We cannot let the government treat some of the most vulnerable people in British society in this way.


The main way you can help is by spreading the message about these changes to ESA. The government have tried to sneak them under the radar – the last thing they will want is people talking about them!

Here are some great ways you can raise awareness:

1). Email your MP (you can search by name or constituency at:;

2). Share this blog post on Twitter (using the hashtag #esaSOS), Facebook and other social media;

3). Email your friends and family a link to this post – or simply talk to them about it!

Again, the main way we can get the government to reconsider is by getting people to talk about the injustice of these changes. So please spread the word as far and wide as you can!

Thank you so much for reading this far. Now let’s make sure these unwanted, damaging benefit changes never see the light of day!

• If you want to do more, please sign the WOW petition and call on the government to think again; sign here: – and ask all of your friends to sign too!

• The full Spartacus briefing on the proposed changes to ESA can be found here:

This article was originally published on Sue’s blog, “Diary of a Benefit Scrounger”; follow Sue on Twitter: @suey2y.

6 Responses to “ESA SOS: Another day, another attack on disabled people”

  1. Mark

    Of the thousands of horrendous repercussions coming to light as a result of the work capability assessment, this article is far too tame. Mark Hoban is beginning to mimic the characteristics of Joseph Goebbels . What is it going to take to put a stop to this insanity?

  2. Ian Gottherd

    Yet another step along the wholly cynical campaign against the disabled by the coalition and it’s lackeys. It’s not just them who are to blame though; it’s the newspapers who parrot the lies and distortions and the public who fail to realize how much they are being manipulated into being complacent about the ongoing war on the hardest hit, poorest, weakest people in the UK.

    You can judge a country by it’s attitudes towards the most vulnerable, and I am increasingly finding myself ashamed of my country. That only makes me want to do more to help though.

    Disclosure : None of the issues raised in this story will affect me, but that’s exactly the point. Solidarity.

  3. Hive Node 182.5

    Why don’t the newspapers carry these stories? It’s a f**king outrage!

    Remember when the media almost universally condemned the 2011 riots as the work of a “feral” underclass? Well there’s nothing more feral than the way the establishment media has turned on the most vulnerable. It’s literally inhuman. All this information I see being gathered every day on AtoS and the DWP, and I think “great, the word is spreading, people are realising they can talk about it openly now, the truth will out, justice is coming” but it never comes to anything. A few blogs here and there, but not even a blip in the newsagents. It’s like a media blackout.

  4. Gill

    There was also a model called Tom… Tom suffers with Epilepsy, he has several fits a week and when he has a fit he is Incontinent and needs help changing his clothes. Before 28th January Tom would have been assessed to go in the Support Group. Three Months later Tom is assessed again and is put in the Works Related Activity Group because when he is Incontinent he is Unconcious! You have to now be Incontinent whilst being Conscious. Theses WCA Descriptors were supposed to be changed to help disabled people NOT make their lifes harder. Some Epileptics can have 100’s of fits per week, People do not want to Employ them. If they did want to get a job and want the support they could still do so from the Support Group, without being forced into Work. When will people realise there is a difference between illness and Disability? My Father was tetraplegic and still worked because he was not ill, he felt well and did not have a disease. People can be more mobile but suffer illness which makes them unable to work. Everyone is so…Para Olympics… Yes they do not suffer …illness, they suffer DIS..ABILITY.

  5. BusyBeeBuzz

    Solicitor, Chris Fry, is a bit confused! The topic under discussion is disability, not religion! Fry claims that “the government at risk of breaching article 9 of the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights, which preserves an individual’s right to ‘thought, conscience and religion’. With regard to the large number of suicides that have occurred in response to the Atos/DWP WCAs, the government is at risk of being charged with breach of Article 3 of the UK HRA and Article 3 of the EU Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – No Torture. In my case, Professor Harrington’s recommendations about fluctuating conditions were not applied, so the DWP are also in breach of Article 14 of the UK HRA & the ECHR No Discrimination which is an incorporated right which I incorporate with sections 6 and 149 of the Equalities Act 2010.

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