Charlie Swinbourne: Whoever wins the election needs to stop the DWP bullying deaf employees

Posted on May 7, 2015

Today is the day all of us – deaf included – have the chance to go to the polls to elect the next government of this country. I’m not going to say who I’m voting for here, but I’ll tell you who I’m not voting for, and that’s the Conservative Party.

Frankly, so many of their policies (and I hold them more responsible than their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats) have made deaf and disabled people’s lives harder that I think we’d have to be crazy to put a tick next to a box that a Conservative candidate’s name is in.

There’s the bedroom tax, the way they assessed (via Atos) people’s suitability to work, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and much more (here’s an article by Frances Ryan that lists 8 policies and their effects on disabled people).

And of course, there’s Access to Work (ATW).

I think that whoever emerges victorious (and the result may not be clear cut) should be putting reforming ATW at the top of their list of priorities because I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the way that deaf and disabled people’s support is being taken away by the DWP amounts to bullying.

For this article, I’m going to focus on deafness and some of the stories which have come out recently but first, I’ll give a sense of what ATW cuts mean for non-deaf readers.

Imagine what it’d be like to go to work one day and find you can’t communicate with your colleagues, follow meetings, talk to your boss, or phone a client.

Imagine if that day turned into weeks, and months, watching your career prospects slowly fade away. Never mind work, how would you deal with the isolation and loneliness you’d face?

This is the real-life possibility hanging over the heads of many deaf employees who use British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate, because for around a year and a half now, the government’s Access to Work scheme has operated more like it should be called Barriers to Work, because so many sign language users are finding their careers under threat as a result of having support delayed, declined, or suddenly taken away, for seemingly any reason that DWP employees can think of.

Two weeks ago, the story of a deaf man called Drew Budai hit the headlines. Budai has worked as a support worker for Merseyside Society for Deaf People for seven years, helping isolated deaf people interact with wider society.

As part of his job he used a sign language interpreter to make phone calls for his clients (to book medical appointments, for example) and – because English is his second language – to support his administration duties.

Budai recently applied for two extra hours of sign language interpreting support a week. The reply he got from the DWP didn’t just turn down his request, but also told him that, after being funded since 2007, all his support is being withdrawn.

Just like that.

The DWP said this was because Budai is deaf and his job involves communicating with deaf people. He now falling behind with work, while his employers have said they face a bleak future if other support workers they employ lose their funding.

The fact is, Budai’s story is the norm now. However much the current government boasts about the rising number of disabled people getting support from the scheme, it seems very clear that sign language users are being targeted to reduce costs.

A deaf teacher I know – who teaches deaf children – doesn’t need support during the day, but asked for two hours a week of interpreting support for training sessions after work. This was rejected because, remarkably, Access to Work said they didn’t see this as part of her core role.

Lottie Powell, a direct payments adviser for a disability organisation in Brighton, received a letter from Access to Work last November not only rejecting her application, but remarkably, claiming that her support workers were actually doing her job for her.

Then there’s the story of Nick Beese, a Senior User Experience Designer, who left his job at the BBC for a new job at Amazon. He then had to wait weeks for confirmation of sign language support for his new job, which he says involves attending up to four meetings or conference calls a day, and running design workshops.

He told last year’s Access to Work inquiry that the uncertainty he went through had “shaken my confidence in my ability to follow my ambitions and develop my career.”

That inquiry gave its findings in December, stating bluntly that the changes had “threatened the employability” of BSL users. It also said that government changes to hourly pay rates and attempts to make some deaf people employ a full-time (rather than freelance) interpreter had had a “detrimental impact” on deaf people’s ability to get interpreting support.

The Disability Minister, Mark Harper, promised improvements in the wake of the report, but one of the main changes he’s brought into the scheme is a new cap on how much support individuals can claim.

As Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company has written,“it means that should [a deaf actor] be lucky and have a good run of work, they may then find that they can’t accept any more work for the rest of the year.” She added that deaf and disabled people now “come with a massive pound sign over our heads.”

What these stories all add up to isn’t only about deaf people suddenly being unable to communicate at work. Many are now questioning future ambitions, wondering whether it’s worth the risk of changing job, or working for a promotion – when support could disappear at any time.

It’s also about having to spend time and energy battling with Access to Work instead of being able to focus on the role they are supposed to be doing. The stress of dealing with the DWP has even led some deaf people to take sick leave.

Deaf people who are doing well at work while communicating in their first language, BSL, should be success stories for the DWP to be proud of, instead of being treated as a drain on funds, an inconvenience, and an easy area to cut.

Deaf employees have a value, and it’s time for the DWP to stop treating them like they, and their communication needs, aren’t worth supporting.

Let’s hope the next government – whoever they might be – realise that.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist, director and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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