Giving A-toss about disability

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website.

As the end of the London Paralympic Games draws closer, the legacy of the event for the disabled community is on the agenda. Will the inspiration and excitement have a lasting positive outcome for people with disabilities in Britain?

Many campaigners are unconvinced. They are also angry at the Games’ sponsorship by Atos. The company is deeply unpopular for its Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which help the Department for Work and Pensions decide who receives health and disability related benefits and who is ‘fit for work.’

The tests have come in for a huge amount of criticism for being inaccurate and unfair as the government tries to cut the cost of the welfare bill, leaving many without the support they depend on.

When Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics was announced, it caused an outcry. Many found it offensive that the organization was going to be so closely associated with an event celebrating the best of disabled sport.

Last week saw the climax to a week of action by activists intent on ramming home the message that the French company don’t #giveatoss about disabled people. On Friday 31 August Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut teamed up outside Atos’ UK headquarters for a ‘Closing Atos Ceremony’.

Protesters also blockaded and occupied the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). As police broke up the demonstration outside, DPAC reported one arrest, several injuries to protesters and damage to one woman’s wheelchair.

In a poignant twist, Friday’s protest also coincided with the death from cancer of 51-year-old Cecilia Burns from Northern Ireland – just six months after DWP found her ‘fit to work’ following an Atos assessment.

Earlier in the week DPAC staged a vigil outside Atos, delivering a coffin to remember others who had died, including people who committed suicide after receiving their assessment results.

Elsewhere, actions included a mass ‘die-in’ in Cardiff’s city centre, which blocked a major road, as well as a blockade in Manchester outside an Atos office.

Paralympians themselves have voiced their concern about Atos. Former swimmer and seven-time medal winner Tara Flood played a role in the ‘Atos Games’ as part of a spoof ceremony where she had a medal awarded then taken away after an Atos assessment.

During the opening ceremony of the Paralympics it was thought Team GB were hiding their Atos-branded lanyards in an act of protest. However, team officials later denied this.

The Paralympics and whether they benefit the struggles of disabled people has become a thorny issue. Activists have been accused of drawing attention away from the games and the achievements of the athletes…

Read the rest of this blog here at the New Internationalist website.

Raising the curtain on Atos

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 31 July 2012.

A cockroach, a tapeworm, herpes, a blood-sucking leech – just some of the terms used to describe Atos Healthcare by people who have come into contact with the company..

Assessments for disability and health related state benefits, conducted by Atos, have been hugely controversial. The company is paid by the British government’s Department for Work and Pensions to help decide who can work and who can’t, who keeps receiving money and who doesn’t. Not only are their results often found to be inaccurate, but the process can be lengthy and debilitating.

In September 2011, the Atos Stories collective started advertising online for people’s experiences of Work Capability Assessments with the aim of making them into plays. Judith Cole [a pseudonym] decided to set up the project after reading horror stories in the press. ‘I think I first saw the story that probably went around on Twitter about a poor guy who’d died of a heart attack after an Atos assessment,’ she says.

Adam Lotun, 49, is one of the people who got in touch with his experience. He says he has had two assessments by Atos, one where he was considered able to work, and one where he wasn’t.

However, he feels neither was in-depth enough to determine the true impact of his multiple health issues which include mental health problems, learning disabilities, needing a wheelchair for mobility, and a machine to help him breathe at night. ‘If I was a horse they would put me down,’ he says.

By May 2012 the small collective had three play scripts ready: Atos Stories, a drama with music, The Atos Monologues and Atos Street Theatre, all available via their website for people to put on in their communities.

Campaigners can use the plays to raise awareness about Atos and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Interest has been building, including from activists angry at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza is a 30-year-old campaigner from Our Olympics. ‘There’s still a shocking amount of public ignorance about the stuff that’s happened with Atos and what the actual impacts are on the disabled community,’ she says.

Act Up, a community theatre company based in Newham, London is putting on a performance of Atos Stories. The group is made up of both people with disabilities and people without. ‘We are now trying to adapt it and make it accessible for our group,’ says Yvonne Brouwers their chair…

Read the rest at New Internationalist.