On the face of it, Dr Norman Waddington – the holder of not just one, but two PhDs – should have what it takes to be offered a job interview. But like many disabled people – he is blind – this is not proving to be the case.
Early last year the government launched a programme of Incapacity Benefit reassessment, under which recipients of the benefit as well – as well as those in receipt of Severe Disablement Allowance or Income Support paid on the grounds of incapacity – were required to have their eligibility reassessed by undergoing a new “Work Capability Assessment”.
Anyone assessed as capable of working were moved on to Job Seekers’ Allowance or – for those with limited capability for work – Employment Support Allowance.
While Waddington accepts this is fair, he says the way the system has worked for disabled people is in danger of swinging from one extreme to another – from a situation where people were left isolated on benefits with no options, to one where they are being moved off benefits when the work may not be there.
“When I was pushed onto it at the age of 34, it was a bitter pill to swallow to be told you weren’t fit to work, when you knew you were. Now the tables have turned – they want people off incapacity benefit and back onto Employment Support Allowance and back into work. If you look at the small print in the DWP stuff, it seems you are likely to get benefit cuts after six months, but it’s not clear. The Jobcentre people don’t know what’s going on.”
Waddington has not worked since 1993, when he was made redundant from a white collar post at the Sellafield nuclear plant. Since then he has done some voluntary work, and looked for other jobs sporadically but since the benefit changes in Easter has been searching intensively.
“I must receive 1,000 job list emails a week now, people don’t realise the time it takes to plough through them with a screen reader,” he says. But despite having applied for some 800 jobs in that time, and despite his PHDs – in biodiversity science and clinical animal behaviour – he is yet to be shortlisted for any post.
“You get a bog-standard letter, saying you’re not successful on this occasion – they don’t say why. It’s soul-destroying. These email lists with jobs – sighted people can scan down them quickly, but we’ve got to go down it and read it all – people have no knowledge of the time it takes. And the time it takes to do an application, to use a screen-reader, cutting and pasting – for someone who didn’t have the computer knowledge I do it would be impossible.
“It’s as if they’re not aware of the time and effort it takes. They don’t want to know or they don’t want to know. And if you put it all in a covering letter, explaining about Access to Work, it’s as if they just throw your application out – though I can’t prove that’s the case.”
It is now up to the government to work out how to make the system fairer, he said.”They need to close the loopholes. The classic is the two-tick system, by which if an applicant meets the job criteria and is disabled, they are bound by law to give you an interview. So they just don’t shortlist you, they say you don’t meet criteria. Something needs to be done.”
The problems don’t stop there –applying for jobs in the first place can be made all but impossible by inaccessible online forms for job applications, he says. Recently he encountered a problem with an online application form on a local authority site, for example, which featured a visual icon to call up an interactive calendar for applicants to select dates such as start dates and end dates of previous jobs.
“Using JAWS for windows, you can’t access it. They very grudgingly sent me a word copy of an application form, but how accessible that will be, I’m not sure. They say they can’t accept a CV and a covering letter for application, even though under the Disability Discrimination Act you have an obligation to find an alternative method. The Jobcentre people say this is wrong, but I think half the forms I send are not getting to the people they should be. If they’re not meeting the admin criteria, they’re just scrapped.”
The Jobcentre itself is not providing enough information in accessible formats either, Waddington says. “People could possibly lose benefit, because it says in the small print you can lose £26 a week after six months. I went on it in September, so after March I could lose benefit if I don’t turn up for the Jobcentre interviews, or take up any placements they offer. But you don’t get this information in a format you can read.
“After my last Jobcentre interview, they said do I want a typed transcript – I said I couldn’t see it, can you email it to me? They said no, their computer system doesn’t talk to the internet. Then they gave me a whole load of leaflets I can’t see – I had asked for Braille, but it’s not available.”
Undeterred, Waddington says he will carry on trying to find work. “Obviously if I can get back into work I will get back into work. You can’t let it get to you – you’ve just got to keep on trying.”