An army veteran and former labourer, David’s injury prevented him working. His story shows the importance of a supportive and effective welfare system for those unable to work.
Born in Blackburn, David joined the army after school and served in Lebanon. After returning to civilian life, David did manual work, “All kinds of labouring, heavy duty jobs like loading wagons and the demolition of buildings”. He had enough money to live on, and was happy. David’s face lights up when he talks of Jean, his wife. They met in their 30s, and were married within a year.
Then in 1998 David had an accident, falling down the stairs at home. It left him with serious back and leg injuries, unable to work. David had spent 20 years “paying in”. He received Incapacity Benefit to support him while he recovered. However, his back injury was not easy to treat and he suffered from depression. A terrible throat infection then stole David’s voice, and he has not talked since – for 10 years he has communicated by typing on a computer. Everything became overwhelming, and David would only leave the house for doctor appointments. He became very dependent on his wife, putting a strain on their relationship.
David received Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) until 2012 when he was summoned to a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). In a wheelchair, and unable to talk, David recounts that “I had my WCA and they said I was fit forwork. They took no notice of my very obvious problems. There’s not even anywhere in the report talking about my silence during the assessment, and some of the things in the report were simply false, they must have just made that up.”
With ESA taken away, David was left living on the lowest rate of Disability Living Allowance. Receiving less than £100 per month, he and his family began to starve. “When my ESA was stopped, it put my family deeper into poverty”, he says. “There were times we went without food, once we didn’t eat for three days, the benefits were not enough to support us. It was a vicious circle. To keep my bones strong and healthy I needed a healthy diet, but I couldn’t afford a healthy diet, so my condition got worse. We wouldn’t have survived without food banks. The benefits system should have been better”.
David now lives in Wigan, and attends a community centre called Sunshine House which has given him a greater sense of purpose. He has made good friends, playing Scrabble and other games, and writing science fiction at the writers’ group.
David says he has been “struggling, maybe like a lot of people” in the last few years. He is accepting of his condition, remarking, “After this amount of time I don’t think that it will improve. I gave up on miracles ages ago”. But he smiles and notes the many riches he does enjoy. Through it all, there is a real determination to be part of society, to be accepted. He says, “I want other people to accept my condition as it’s not going to get any better. I’d like to be known as me, as I am now. I am David.”
Interview carried out, and photos taken, by Peter Cruickshank for Greater Manchester Poverty Action’s Beyond Poverty report
Since their introduction in 20008 Work Capability Assessments have come under much criticism from disabled groups, academics and independent assessors for damaging mental health and wrongly removing funding from many people in need. Furthermore the National Audit Office has found that about 70,000 ESA claimants have been underpaid for years, some as much as £20,000.