More work is needed to ensure the ESA assessment process doesn’t cause unnecessary stress or anxiety

On 4 April, the government started to issue letters to all people claiming Incapacity Benefit, inviting them to attend an assessment of their needs in order to migrate them to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from June this year.

Those claiming Disability Living Allowance (to be replaced by Personal Independence Payment) are included in this group.

More work is needed to ensure that people with a learning disability benefit from the ESA and that the assessment process does not trigger unnecessary stress or anxiety. Also, it is important to ensure that the assessments themselves are fair, thorough and carried out by health professionals who have an in-depth understanding of the nature of learning disability.

On 23 March, the Disability Benefits Consortium and Disability Alliance published its report Benefitting disabled people?, which highlighted the ways in which these welfare reforms will impact on people with a physical or learning disability. The report found that 43% of respondents who had been for a medical assessment for ESA said that it made their condition worse because of the stress that it caused and, additionally, half of the respondents did not agree with their assessment outcome, with half of these people appealing against it. Since then, statistics have been released to show that 40% of people who appealed their decisions from the Working Capability Assessment (WCA) pilot schemes, initiated by the government in Burnley and Aberdeen, had them overturned on appeal. This high percentage gives us cause for concern.

One way in which these concerns can be addressed is by ensuring that all assessments are carried out by well-informed healthcare professionals, who have a thorough understanding of learning disability and the potential variations that each individual can experience as a result of their condition. This will enable the assessment to more accurately measure the impact that an individual’s learning disability has on their ability to work, thus preventing disputable decisions being made based on a poorly informed assessment. The assessment itself needs to be fair and sensitive to those with a learning disability in order to prevent inaccurate decisions being made. Furthermore, knowing that you will have someone who thoroughly understands the circumstances of your condition will help to ease anxiety and worry surrounding the assessment in itself.

We are eager to see that people with learning disabilities receive the best possible support in order to access suitable work opportunities. Further figures from the government’s WCA trials showed that 38% of people claiming Incapacity Benefit have the potential to work when given the right support. Although we do not know how many people in this 38% were claiming Disability Living Allowance, we remain positive that the Work-Related Activity Groups, that have been initiated by the government to support people who are diagnosed as unwell but able to work in the near future, will enable people with a learning disability to get additional help to find and keep work.

We remain broadly supportive of the changes to the welfare system, but we await more detailed information on the support available in each area, as the prime contractors have just been announced.