How to survive a benefits assessment

By Sylvia Rose

Some benefits assessments go ok. The assessor is sympathetic, the outcome is what you’d hoped for. These are often the ones you don’t hear about. What gets circulated are the horror stories – and of course, these happen too, in our current hostile environment towards welfare claimants. Lots of times it’s just the luck of the draw. But there may also be things you can do to help towards the best outcome, including ways to protect yourself from the stress making you worse.

If you were going for a job interview, you’d prepare first. You’d familiarise yourself with the demands of the prospective work, you’d think up good recent examples of your capabilities. You’d think about what you most want them to know about you. With disability assessments, you do the same but in reverse. Remind yourself of the questions on the form, and think of all the recent times that you haven’t succeeded at these tasks. Come up with telling examples. And be sure to keep them relevant. The assessment may take the form of a rambling review of an average day, but the assessor is only interested in what ticks the boxes. Or not. If there’s a question about whether you can read ok, it’s no good telling them about how you can no longer manage to watch TV. It’s true, but it’s just not relevant. (People who sit on appeal tribunals have been known to lament that although they can see how disabled or ill a person is, they just can’t make these disabilities fit into the very limited number of boxes.) They’re not assessing your life in the round, they’re assessing a very limited number of criteria that are thought to be representative of your abilities overall, but probably aren’t. Can you cook a simple meal? Can you find your way by public transport? Feed them just the answers they need.

Take specialist advice first. If there’s a charity relevant to your particular disability, see if you can talk to their welfare advisor. They often have a very good idea about what’s relevant and what’s not, what the assessors are looking for. Think about what conclusions the assessor will come to about how you get there – if you drive, they’ll assume you’re fine to drive. So make them pay for a taxi to get you there, if that’s what you need. If you take someone with you for support, they’re more inclined to think you don’t trust your own ability to manage alone.

With speed limits, even the police say they allow an extra 5% over, to allow for speedometer errors. Most people assume this to mean you can get away with 10% over. I think it’s sort of like this with benefits: they assume you to be adding on at least 10% to what you can’t do, so they mentally knock that amount off what you say. So you need to add it back on just to come out accurate. I’m not saying exaggerate wildly, but err on the side of stressing the negatives not the positives. It’s not just can you do something once, it’s can you do it “repeatedly, safely and sustainably, and in a timely manner” – their own guidelines say this. And can you do it on the majority of days in any week? If not, make it very clear that you can’t.

While you talk, they’re noting not just what you say, but how you say it. Do you give a coherent account of yourself, or do you lose track of what you’re saying, fail to remember what medication you’re on, appear to be anxious or depressed? It’s sometimes difficult, but try not to give an unrealistically positive impression of yourself. Allow yourself to stumble. To cry. Don’t turn up freshly showered and neatly dressed, if that’s not how you are most of the time. You need to be blunt about it all, for them to get a true picture.

I also think it’s worth trying to let them establish a good rapport with you. You may well be feeling angry, reluctant, anxious. But that can come across as defensive, and defensive suggests to them that you’re hiding the truth. So it helps to appear open and cooperative. It helps to produce authentic and plausible tales of where you’ve recently failed at the criteria, so they’re more inclined to believe you.

Sometimes people are reluctant to talk about their lives because they find it shameful, humiliating. The first time I encountered the question of whether I soil myself, my mind just reared up and wouldn’t go there. The next time I was more hardened: I thought, if it gets me the points I need, I’ll tell the truth. Shame, after all, is a social construct, and needs unpicking. (When I was in hospital after colorectal surgery, the morning wardrounds always asked “and have you broken wind yet?” I was proud to be able say, yes, I’m farting all the time. We allow doctors to ask these questions.)

So, we are taught – by able-bodied society – what’s shameful and what isn’t. Well, maybe it’s time to start redefining shame. It’s not our fault our bodies and minds behave as they do. The same as gay people have reclaimed gay pride from something that was once defined as shameful, we need our disability pride, too.

And then there’s magic. I’m not saying do a spellworking for a specific outcome – these can be tricky. But use your Pagan skills to support yourself through the process. If you find yourself becoming stressed beforehand, do whatever helps to relax yourself and stay mindful in the present. Visualise a positive outcome. Send prayers to deities of justice – Athena, Ma’at. Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t. Before you go in, shield yourself. Imagining a mirror facing outwards around your solar plexus is a good way to send any outside negative energies back to where they came from.

And afterwards, take a lot of time to care for yourself. Plan a treat – even if it’s just a bar of chocolate waiting for you when you get home. Line up someone to talk to. I would suggest a process of energy cleansing, even if it’s just a basic tree of life grounding. Let go of any shame, of all the images of what you can’t do, and remind yourself of all you can do, of all the people who value you, of how special you are. How none of this is your fault.

Good luck.

This post originally appeared on our first site, in 2018