If you’ve ever claimed Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), formerly known as Incapacity Benefit, or Personal Independence Payment (PIP), formerly known as Disability Living Allowance (DLA), you’re probably familiar with the way that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) operate around disabled people, and those unable to work. ATOS assessments were a shambles, and appeals have overturned a frankly shocking number of decisions to remove benefits in an incredibly expensive process.

And things aren’t getting better. Fightback, a community organisation based in Bury, reported on their Facebook about the increased number of calls to their helpline from people who’d been called in for interviews under caution – which is what the DWP investigation team pull you in for if they suspect you of fraud. Many people from around the country have reported that the investigation team check people’s social media (Facebook and Instagram in particular) to gather evidence that people aren’t “as disabled” as they say they are – particularly relevant if you’re getting mobility components but are seen as if you’re getting yourself out and about on your own.

Of course, old photos may be shared on Facebook by you or your family, or ones that show you in a public place that you didn’t manage to get to by yourself with a carer out of shot, but that doesn’t seem to be their primary concern. According to Fightback, lots of this kind of evidence has been presented when removing benefits, and has to be fought at appeals that can take a long time. CCTV from airports and other public places that are monitored by the council have also been used, as well as footage from one of the big theme parks in the UK, according to their source, especially if they show someone more mobile than their assessment suggests.

But the most shocking thing in Fightback’s Facebook post is the blanket requests for footage from leisure centres. The DWP, for fraud investigation purposes, are asking private businesses to provide them with footage of disabled people using their services, which seems to contradict Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (your right to respect for private and family life). Even if you take into account the fraud prevention legal angle that the DWP use to make this not be in contravention of the Equality Act (2010) as well, take into account what kind of evidence they’re looking to get for health centres.

“Nobody wants the actual fraudsters to be found out more than disabled people who are being given a bad name by them.”

Fightback noted that leisure centre attendance records had been used as evidence before, just not footage up until now. However, like a school register, an attendance record only shows that you were in the building, not what you were doing or how hard you were working while you were doing it. At my local centre, there’s a cardio gym upstairs, a weights gym downstairs, and a swimming pool and health suite downstairs as well. If I scan my card, it just says that I’m there; that has no relation to what it is that I’m doing. It’s even been the case before now that I’ve gone in and just showered – there’s a fully accessible shower room that many disabled people may need but not have in their homes. Additionally, facilities like steam rooms and saunas and sometimes hot tubs may even be completely accessible (although, not at my centre) and it’s fairly well known for heat to be good for chronic pain.

Now, of course, if you get the higher rate of mobility but you run 5 miles a day on the treadmill every single day without fail, you probably aren’t entitled to that mobility component, and footage would show that. Nobody wants the actual fraudsters to be found out more than disabled people who are being given a bad name by them. But even the tiniest bit of activity can be made to show you as if you were the most active gym bunny in the world. If you’re able to walk in, but then you can barely move when you come out, I’m sure you can guess which bit of footage is likely to be used. Last week I went in and swam 8 lengths of a 25m pool, then had to sit in the baby pool for 20 minutes and just gently throw a ball about; but I can imagine what footage would be shown. If you swim 2 lengths but that takes you 15 minutes, it’s not hard to imagine that the story would be “Claimant swam lengths for 15 minutes”, without taking into account the difficulty with which you do it. Your good days will be used as evidence that you don’t have bad days.

All of this leads me to my primary concern that I had when I first read this post – exercise can be incredibly good for you if you’re disabled. I have fibromyalgia and joint hypermobility, and my physiotherapist has actually put me on an exercise program: regular activity to fight fatigue, gentle, non-impact movements to stop stiffening, and muscle building to stabilise my joints. Being in the water makes me weightless, meaning every step isn’t risking hyperextending my knees or rolling my ankles. Exercise is recommended in Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Arthritis, all long term health conditions that lead to people applying for disability benefits. I don’t claim any benefits at all, although I do think it would be possible for me to apply, because I hate this idea that doing what medical professionals who are experts in my personal circumstances say to do to maybe get a slight bit of improvement, would be the evidence used to suggest I don’t need any help at all. Of course, it would be possible to get a note from your doctor to say that you should do certain things in order to counteract this evidence that the DWP may try to use; but ask any disabled person, our lives are so full of admin as it is!

I spoke to someone who does claim PIP, who are concerned that the DWP’s latest measures could cause serious harm to their mental and physical health:

I was awarded PIP due to both physical and mental illness, which limit my mobility and stop me from socialising. My goal this year was to become more active and get out more, which I’ve achieved by joining my local leisure centre. Regular pilates and aquafit classes are great for my bones and muscles but more than anything have improved my mental health immeasurable amounts. The DWP seem to expect disabled people to stay in bed all day and do nothing whilst at the same time admonishing us for providing nothing to society.

Nobody wants to root out the actual fraudsters more than those who are called scroungers because we’re seen to be in the same category as them if we can walk more than 100 meters without literally collapsing. The problem is the DWP are both misrepresenting the situation at hand, and also punishing behaviours that may have the potential to improve quality of life. All the exercise in the world won’t make me healthy, but not doing it does have a further negative effect.

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