*see 'Note on Photograph' below
In 2008, Labour introduced Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to replace Incapacity Benefit for people who are too ill or disabled to work. Unlike its predecessor, claimants of ESA are assessed by way of a questionnaire and outsourced health assessment, rather than by their GP or consultant.
The current coalition government
has begun the next step to move long-term Incapacity Benefit claimants over to
the new scheme (it previously only applied to new applicants) and have stated
that approximately 40% of claimants are in fact ‘fit to work’. The private
organisation contracted to process the questionnaires and conduct medical
examinations, Atos Healthcare, has been widely criticised for conducting an
unacceptable number of incorrect health assessments, and have in the last four
years declared many seriously – or even terminally – ill claimants ‘fit to
work’. Clearly this is a highly flawed system
This case seems indicative of the recent wont for quantitative rather than qualitative data that has emerged in the last 20 years. The fact that our governments are no longer willing to trust highly trained human beings, instead finding a tick-box points based system ‘more reliable’, is highly worrying.
There is no successful way the
one can judge a persons disability, which may be incredibly complex, by asking
questions like, ‘Can you lift one of your arms above your head to reach for
something?’ It strikes me that this is no more ridiculous than asking someone
who is religious, ‘when was the last time you spoke to god?’ or judging how in
love someone is in by asking, ‘how long can you bear to be away from your
lover?’ We would never expect the latter to become a part of an official
government process: the idea is laughable.
I have for some time now been interested in the possibilities that arise when we subvert the official, and am inspired by the Lettrist international movement’s detournement tactics and satirists such as Jonathan Swift. In 2008 to mark the closure of Dartington College of Arts I created Void, a re-writing of the Dartington Hall Trust’s Space leaflet, which marketed the soon to be vacant spaces. The leaflet was distributed across the estate, mixed in with the trust’s original pamphlets and handed to passers-by.
The fictional Department for
Trust ‘Limited Capability for Living’ questionnaire aims to ridicule the
original Atos Healthcare ‘Limited Capability for Work’ questionnaire. By taking
the example of measuring the effect that being in love may have on a person’s
day to day life – something that is accepted as being unquantifiable by
tick-boxes – I hope to point out the flaws in this system for judging
I am making this work because I care about it, and because it affects people who are close to me. Because I have never been forced to declare my differences on a piece of paper, and send it to a big corporation, in order to live my life, and I don’t believe that anyone should have to.
In no way to I wish to ridicule those who are forced into a situation of having to fill out these forms, tick the boxes, get the ‘points’. Instead it is my hope that the questionnaire ‘Limited Capability for Living’ will serve its purpose to detourn and point ridicule at the assumption that humans can be defined by anything so inhuman and ineffective as the ‘Limited Capability for Work ESA50 questionnaire.
The image that the Department for Work and Pensions use on the section of their website dedicated to this questionnaire shows a woman, probably in her sixties. She is smiling, wearing makeup, stylish. She looks fine. But we assume that she is not fine – she is applying for Employment Support Allowance. ‘Look’, it says, ‘people can be normal/happy and disabled’. Its very PC. My photo is of myself. Like the older woman I am smiling, wearing makeup. ‘I’m fine!’ it says. I was not fine, I had just ended a five year relationship. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, and the photo isn’t very convincing: I don’t think I hide my ‘disablility’ as well as the DWP woman.
© Rachael Clerke 2012