Archive | January 2015

Keep Volunteering Voluntary

This is a piece I wrote for a campaign group called ‘Keep Volunteering Voluntary’.  They believe that forcing people on job seekers allowance to do forced ‘volunteer’ work or face benefit sanctions is wrong.  They, like me, truly believe that volunteering is a good thing, but only if you choose to do it.  What if you are sent to work for a charity that supports a cause you do not even believe in?  What if the work you are forced to do effects your health or mental well-being as it is unsuitable for you?  I wrote to the charity with my experiences of the forced work scheme as I was so shocked at what happened to me.  They then asked me to write a short blog about my experiences which they published on their website.  This is that blog:

On its website, key provider of welfare to work programmes, Pinnacle People claims it “can be relied upon to do the right thing”. Does that include leaving someone with the worry of sanctions over Christmas? Here’s an account of workfare in charity shops:

“Work Placements, as part of Mandatory Work Activity, were sold to me as a great opportunity to learn useful skills, gain valuable experience, enhance my CV and help my local community. Instead of seeing these schemes as something you’re expected to do in return for JSA, I began one with a positive and hopeful outlook. Well, it wasn’t long before I realised I’d been completely misled.

My first placement in a local charity shop, which was meant to go on for 6 weeks, lasted all of two days. The problem was they had far too many willing volunteers in the shop and frankly did not need forced ‘volunteers’ from the jobcentre. The shop was already using one other person on work experience and struggling to find enough for everyone to do. A private company called Pinnacle People, who deal with work placements on behalf of the jobcentre in my area, found it for me. On my first day, a work placement case worker from that company turned up. The charity shop manager made no mention of already having more than enough people and made it sound as if she could really use my help. But then she let me leave an hour early, saying as it was my first day that will do for now, when it was clear she had run out of tasks for me. On the second day she had me distributing leaflets in the area. When I got back she sent me out again with another big pile. By the time these ran out, I must have delivered one to almost every local home. I got the impression the manager was trying to keep me both busy and out-of-the-way. But there are only so many charity shop leaflets you can keep on posting through people’s letterboxes and, by the third day, she finally had to admit I was not actually needed. The manager sent me home and rang the jobcentre to cancel my placement. Instead of feeling pleased about no longer having to waste my time going there, my immediate reaction was fear that I would be sanctioned. The manager had to reassure me that she would make it clear to the jobcentre that the placement was ending through no fault of my own.

I was not sanctioned but told I’d have to go on another placement. Pinnacle People were, however, really struggling to find one. They said charity shops were either full with people from these schemes or had pulled out of them altogether. Then, with only two and half weeks till Christmas, they managed to find a shop that would take me. This one involved a much longer journey but turned out to be just as pointless as the first. Four of us had been sent there by the jobcentre to start on the same day. Even though it looked more like a jumble sale than a shop, there was no way it required another 4 people working there 5 days a week. I felt really messed around and decided to complain to my placement case worker. When she said it would help me find a job, I pointed I already had experience of working in retail, both in charity shops as a willing volunteer and in two other shops as a paid employee. So how exactly was this making a difference to my job prospects? When I kept on complaining about the placement, the case worker informed me that Pinnacle People were longer prepared to oversee my mandatory work activity. She said I was the first and only person they’d ever needed to effectively ‘ban’ from using their service. Then, just as I was trying not to laugh while feeling quite impressed with myself, she told me she’d have to inform the job centre about my attitude problem and all the things I’d complained about, which could affect my benefit.

JSA is my only source of income and my next appointment at the jobcentre was not until January. I spent all of Christmas and New Year not knowing my fate, wondering if I would soon be flat broke. But it turned out my benefit was not affected at all. As far as my advisor was concerned, there were simply no placements available for me. It seems she never heard the entire story so it looks like the case worker was just making empty threats and asserting her authority. I don’t yet know if I’ll be sent on another placement but think it’s probably unlikely. Where I live there are now few shops willing to be involved in these schemes, and we’re hardly short of charity shops in my town. I think this is a sign that campaigns like Keep Voluntary Volunteering could be working… “

The original blog post on Keep Volunteering Voluntary

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Not Everyone On Benefits Is Trying to Cheat the System

‘Are you fed up with your hard-earned wages being given as ‘benefits’ to individuals in society who don’t deserve them?’
‘Zero tolerance against the work shy, freeloaders and benefit cheats drinking cheap ale, lapping up the sun rays well we slog it out in the offices and factories…..’ ‘Keeping Jeremy Kyle on the tele’.
The inaccuracy I read online about people on benefits can sometimes be amusing, but also sometimes makes me quite angry. I am on Job Seekers Allowance and have been for the best part of three years, but I do not drink ale, have not had a holiday abroad for over four years and have never appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show. These particular quotes come from groups on Facebook against people on benefits, but I have read similar comments on internet forums, on comments to newspaper articles and even heard people say things like this in person. I think in the last few years since the recession the comments about people on benefits have got nastier and more frequent. I think this has been fuelled by both politicians and the media.
The government needed something to cut in the budget, they tried cutting public spending on things like the NHS and education, but this was unpopular with almost all voters from every walk of life. What they needed was something they could cut spending on that did not affect their main core of voters, so they turned their attention to benefits and in particular those for the disabled and jobless. Statistically this makes little sense as the biggest benefit expense is in fact pensions, but no way were they going to touch pensions when older people are one of the main groups of people to vote. The disabled and the jobless are a lot less likely to vote, so the government have less issues with cutting their money. Now the government just had to get the rest of the general public to agree that cutting these benefits was a good thing. So they turned to their friends in the media, and boy did the right-wing press do them proud.
Tabloid newspapers love a benefit cheat story. They love to point out all the people who are able to get money whilst still working or living abroad. If you type benefit cheats into the news section of an internet search engine you would think that an awful lot of people are defrauding the system. However according to Citizens Advice Scotland benefit fraud represents only 2% of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK. In fact the amount of money paid to fraudsters is less than the amount overpaid or underpaid in error by the government. All this negative reporting of benefits seems to working.
To be on benefits long-term is seen as shameful to some people. These people have never had to be on benefits or at least not for more than a few weeks. I am on long-term job seekers, the way some people talk you would think I was a career criminal. I am trying very hard to get a job and do everything the job centre ask of me, even the stuff that makes no sense whatsoever. This is the only income I get and not that large an amount of money either. Without this money I would struggle to have any kind of life. I don’t want a fancy life, just enough of one so I do not go stark raving mad with boredom and loneliness. If more of the public were aware of what being on job seekers is like long-term, they might be less negative towards us. This coming week for example is not even a sign on week and I still have to go to the job centre twice for meetings.
I also used to be on Disability Living Allowance, which seems to get very negative reporting. A lot of people claim they know a neighbour is cheating the system, but I bet nine times out of ten that neighbour is fully entitled to that money. Not every disabled person is fully wheelchair bound and some have conditions that fluctuate giving them good and bad days. People see you on a good day and assume you are faking being disabled or ill. Getting money when being disabled was always fairly tricky, now Personal Independence Payments, replacing DLA are making it even harder. If someone gets PIPs you can rest assured they have probably been thoroughly checked out. No system any government can come up with will be totally fool-proof, someone will always find a way to cheat it for benefits, but the alternative of paying no benefits at all would be way more costly long-term.
Now I think one way to stop benefits being seen as so negative is for more people on them to vote. If the jobless and disabled voted more at elections the government might be less keen to cut their benefits and make them seem so negative. I call on all the disabled and jobless out there who can vote, to do so at the next election and show people that we are not all lazy benefit cheats and that we can and will stand up for ourselves.

How many people does it take to change a light bulb if one of them has a disability?

I came across this joke on Facebook posted in a disability group that I subscribe to on my news feed.  As well as somewhat amusing, I find this to be quite an accurate description of what it is like to be disabled, at least in my experience.

How many people does it take to change a light bulb if one of them has a disability?
Ten
One to tell the disabled person how brave and inspirational they are for trying to change a light bulb
One to ask the disabled person why they can’t work 8 hours a day 5 days a week if they can change a light bulb every few weeks
One to tell the disabled person that they really should not be trying to change a light bulb… you know… with their condition and all
One to send the disabled person an article about how someone with a completely different disability managed to change a light bulb
One to insist on helping the disabled person change the light bulb and get offended and assume it’s personal when they don’t accept the help
One to tell the disabled person that changing a light bulb really isn’t that hard and if they just thought positively and stopped being lazy, they could do it without help
One to ask the disabled person if they’re really disabled if they can manage to change a light bulb
One to send the disabled person a life hack on how to change light bulbs more easily that does not really help disabled people
One to tell a story about how their aunt’s boyfriend’s sister with the same disability changed a light bulb once
And the disabled person to change the flipping light bulb

This is why I find it so accurate:

One to tell the disabled person how brave and inspirational they are for trying to change a light bulb

This is one of my pet hates.  If most people did something as every day as change a light bulb no one could care less, they would not bat an eye lid, but suddenly someone with a disability does it and it becomes a very brave and inspirational thing to do.  I can see why a disabled person could be an inspiration if they did something extraordinary like win a medal at an international sporting event or became a top scientist, but then a non disabled person could also be inspirational for these things.  I want to be an inspiration to someone for doing something noteworthy, not just for living my life.  For most disabled people it is either get on and do these things as everyone else does or just sit there and vegetate and die.  What is worse is that even charities and well-meaning people who work with the disabled go on about how brave and inspirational they all are.  As if each and every disabled person is amazing just for surviving.

One to ask the disabled person why they can’t work 8 hours a day 5 days a week if they can change a light bulb every few weeks

Firstly a lot of disabled people want to work and would if they could get an employer to take them seriously.  If they have taken time off work for their illness or disability an employer may think they will not be a reliable member of the work force and could have too many sick days.  Ignorance is one reason a lot of disabled people do not work.  Secondly the day the disabled person changes the light bulb they may be having a good day, more or less pain-free and able to walk.  They may have waited days or weeks to change the bulb, being in far too much pain to do it any sooner.  Since a lot of disabled people’s conditions fluctuate and they may have more bad days than good it would be very hard for them to work a steady job.  Thirdly some disabled people can change a light bulb, but that will be the only thing they can do that day.  One simple task might leave some disabled people too tired or in pain to do anything else for some hours after, whether that is due to the strong medication they are on making them tired or the disability leaving them in pain if they do much.

One to tell the disabled person that they really should not be trying to change a light bulb… you know… with their condition and all

A lot of disabled people know more about their condition than some GPs.  If you have lived with a condition a long time chances are you have done a lot of reading up on it and listened to a lot of medical people tell you things about it.  So you should know if doing certain tasks are bad for your condition or not.  Then there is the fact that the disabled person has probably lived with the condition for quite some time and knows which tasks they are capable of doing safely and which they should avoid.

One to send the disabled person an article about how someone with a completely different disability managed to change a light bulb

Some people seem to think all disabilities are alike and that if one person with a disability can do something then every other disabled person should be able to do it.  Of course this is not true, every single disabled person is an individual and even people with the same condition can’t all do the same things.

One to insist on helping the disabled person change the light bulb and get offended and assume it’s personal when they don’t accept the help

If a disabled person politely turns down an offer of help, don’t take it personally, they just know they are perfectly capable of doing the task and in fact it might be quicker done alone.  Do not assume a disabled person needs help unless they ask or really look like they are struggling.  Think, would you at this point be offering the help if the person was not disabled?  If the answer is no, then most of the time you do not need to offer the help.

One to tell the disabled person that changing a light bulb really isn’t that hard and if they just thought positively and stopped being lazy, they could do it without help

Try telling that to a person fully wheelchair bound unable to reach the light to change the bulb.  The power of positive thought can do a lot of good, it can help with motivation and self-esteem, but there is very little it can do if you can’t reach the light in the first place!  It can also not do much if you have lost the use of your hands, say through arthritis.

One to ask the disabled person if they’re really disabled if they can manage to change a light bulb

Sometimes if people have not met many disabled people, they often form preconceptions of what it is to be disabled.  Not all disabled people will meet those preconceptions, in fact most of them probably won’t.  To be disabled does not always render the person totally incapable of doing simple everyday tasks.

One to send the disabled person a life hack on how to change light bulbs more easily that does not really help disabled people

After I looked up what a life hack even is, I realised it was those silly tips or tricks people send you about how to do something more efficiently, that usually ends up with me taking twice as long to do something than it would have done had I just done it the normal way.  Basically a life hack is yet more unwanted advice that ends up with me being more confused than I was in the first place.  Disabled people often find their own tricks to manage to do something the only way they physically can and don’t need advice they probably can’t use.

One to tell a story about how their aunt’s boyfriend’s sister with the same disability changed a light bulb once

So what if that person did change the light bulb, who flipping cares?