With the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) continuing to fail people with hidden disabilities such as brain injury, we asked 62-year-old David Horner to share his experience of brain injury and explain how the process of applying for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) hampered his recovery.
“There is no doubt in my mind – the WCA process is immoral,” said David. “I felt that, from the very first moment, the assessors were trying to make it difficult for me. They set the first hurdle so high, hoping that you’ll slip up and not have the energy or confidence to even attempt the second hurdle.
“I was 47 when I sustained my brain injury, but it’s fair to say life had already thrown up plenty of challenges by that stage. For the majority of my early career, I was a mechanical engineer, travelling the country fixing forklift trucks. Life was good, and in November 1976 I married Janice and we settled down in Congleton, Cheshire.
“In 1993, life took a turn for the worse. At 43, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was desperately ill and Janice was told I would most likely die. However, after a long and painful course of chemotherapy, I managed to pull through.
Hard to cope
“The treatments I’d had to endure, but which also saved my life, had left me with arthritis. When I eventually returned to work after a 12-month absence, I found it incredibly hard to cope. But just as I was beginning to do so, tragedy struck again – only four years after I had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We were enjoying a sailing weekend on Anglesey. While taking a shower at our campsite, I felt a rushing sensation in my head. I told Janice what I’d experienced and she called a local doctor, who immediately arranged for an ambulance to rush me to Bangor Hospital.
“I’d suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a sudden leak of blood over the surface of the brain. I was taken to the Walton Hospital in Liverpool where I underwent a craniotomy to enable doctors to clip the artery. A postoperative CT scan showed significant brain damage had occurred, but at the time, we didn’t know what that would mean in reality.
“Initially, the most obvious sign of a problem was a ‘glide’ in my left eye. It was causing me to have double vision and I needed a special lens to fix the problem. I was also struggling with my short-term memory.
“I tend to forget the last word I have just spoken or repeat myself instantly, while word finding can also be problematic. My ability to sequence tasks was also impaired and at first I found it virtually impossible to complete a logical sentence while writing. It was as if concentrating on the actual handwriting prevented my brain from finding the next word in the sentence. In addition, being unable to complete basic mathematical tasks caused me to become extremely frustrated.
“This time, it was eight months until I could return to work, but thankfully my employer had remained supportive. To help me, I was offered a new role as an assistant health and safety coordinator. Wanting to be the best I could be in this role, I managed to obtain a Level 4 NVQ qualification in Occupational Health and Safety Practice – an achievement I remain proud of.
“With strategies in place to help me cope with the effects of my brain injury, I began to rebuild my life for a second time. But at the end of 2003, I was made redundant. Fortunately, I found another job within a fortnight and stayed there for six years until the firm was bought out by a private equity company, which immediately began looking to cut jobs.
“I had been taken on by the firm to stem the number of accidents taking place. To do so, I needed the support of the management team to change the extremely negative health and safety culture. This brought with it an amount of dispute, which at the time was difficult to deal with.
“By now I had become an extremely confident speaker and ‘corner fighter’. As a result, I wasn’t always the most popular person in the company and I was eventually forced out of the business. I did successfully claim unfair dismissal, citing the Disability Discrimination Act, but I was still out of a job and the stress of the experience had set me back.
“My doctor said I was mentally exhausted and that stress was affecting my cognitive abilities. He advised me that I should not return to work, and I reluctantly agreed to stop searching for another job.
“So, that’s how I came to experience the WCA in order to claim ESA. At my first meeting with an assessor, I presented the young lady who was to carry out the assessment with a comprehensive report compiled by my doctor.
“Her response was ‘Oh, you have a neurological disability, do you? I’m not qualified to do your assessment. You’ll have to see a doctor.’ This was despite me making my particular circumstances quite clear in the first instance.
“I then had to wait several weeks for an appointment to see a doctor retained by Atos, the company that is paid by the government to run the WCA process. I offered him a copy of my doctor’s report, to which he replied: ‘Oh yes the decision maker may find that useful.’ This was not going well; in fact, my assessor gave me zero points.
“I challenged the decision with a view to taking the issue to tribunal, based on the original report from my GP. The initial decision was immediately reviewed and I was awarded my backdated ESA. However, it took several months for my claim to reach a conclusion and the stress of the experience compounded my already fragile neurological condition considerably.
“It is simply unacceptable that people who have not had specific training and who clearly do not understand brain injury or other hidden disabilities can be allowed to make decisions that have such huge implications on people’s lives.
Something needs to be done urgently to stop people with hidden disabilities being unfairly pressured in this way. Otherwise, more lives will be further damaged by a system that is supposed to offer help and support.
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