Jane, 57, says her assessment for the new Personal Independence Payment was “wholly dishonest”
A Banbridge woman has said she feels “totally demoralised” after having her disability benefits slashed following changes to the welfare system.
The woman, who we will call Jane as she wishes to remain anonymous, was receiving mobility and home care payments for several years under the old Disability Living Allowance scheme.
Jane, 57, who has worked all her life in the care industry, began receiving disability benefits following her recovery from breast cancer in 2011.
As part of her cancer treatment, Jane had several lymph nodes on her breast and underarm removed, as well as a large portion of her right breast.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands throughout the body which play an important part in our immune system, trapping bacteria and viruses.
Jane now suffers from Lymphedema, a condition which causes painful swelling in the arms and legs. She now wears compression garments on her right arm and upper body to prevent swelling, which severely restricts her movement.
As a result of her cancer treatment, the mother-of-three’s immune system has been left severely compromised, resulting in frequent, debilitating infections.
She also has to drain fluid from affected areas of her body every day and requires constant support from her husband, who is now retired.
Unable to work and living with constant pain and mobility issues, Jane previously applied for disability benefits and was successful.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Jane said that she was originally reluctant to apply for benefits.
She said: “I have never claimed disability benefits before, but eventually things got so tough I had to accept that I was not the same woman I was before – and I knew I would never be the same woman again.”
“The affect the treatment has on your body is horrible, the tremendous joint pain and pain deep in my bones – I have extreme difficulty walking and getting around.”
Last year, an overhaul of the welfare system resulted in the old DLA system in Northern Ireland being phased out in favour of the new Personal Independence Payment.
The changes required all those receiving DLA payments to be re-assessed by a healthcare professional to determine the level of assistance they require.
Assessment’s in Northern Ireland have been outsourced to the private firm Capita, which in turn employs nurses and other professionals to carry out the assessments.
Jane said that when she was visited by a nurse in April for her assessment, initially she thought the process would be seamless.
“The assessment seemed to be going well, the nurse put me at ease and said i have nothing to worry about. I thought she understood my difficulties and would put that in her report.”
Several weeks later, however, Jane received a letter stating she scored zero in her assessment – meaning she does not require any daily assistance – and, as a result, her benefits would be completely withdrawn.
After obtaining a copy of her assessment forms, Jane was shocked to discover that much of what was in her file was “complete fantasy”.
She said: “Some things were unbelievable, like she just made them up out of nowhere.
“The assessor said that my daughter drives me to the local Tesco in Banbridge every week so I can do my shopping. Now that’s all very well and good – except I have one daughter and she lives in England.
“She has lived there for the last 16 years and visits me once a year. So I don’t know where the assessor got that one from.”
Jane said she was asked during her assessment to perform a range of mobility tests, such as touching her toes and stand on one foot, which she was unable to complete due to her restricted movement.
In her assessment form, it states that Jane “was observed to be able to walk 3m approx at a normal pace unaided, no observation of fatigue or pain with good gait.”
In contrast, Jane recalled: “At no time did [the assessor] observe me walking anywhere. I was not asked to walk and remained in the chair throughout except when standing and sitting down once at their request.”
Jane says she cannot understand why she has been treated like “an outright liar” in her assessment.
She said: “It seems to be to allow someone else to make assumptions about me that are not true. It’s horrible, it’s cynical and it’s nasty.
“Throughout the whole process I felt totally demoralised because they talk to you about the most intimate things, but my husband and I welcomed her into our home. She put me at ease. I opened up and told her some very personal things, and then they went and did this.”
Following a complaint to Capita, Jane was told that assessors “undertake many assessments in one day and, as such, may on occasions find it difficult to recall the exact detail of every assessment.”
They added: “Please be assured, I am not disputing what you have told us, but rather I am unable to find evidence to support this.”
Jane went several months without benefits before having them reinstated recently by the Department for Communities while her case is on appeal.