Last night, I sat down to watch I, Daniel Blake at the Ormeau Baths as part of the ‘Cinema Day’ programme, organised by Film Hub NI. I broke down half way through, when Katie picked out groceries at a foodbank and, unable to wait till she got home to eat, ripped open a can of soup and began to eat a handful of the liquid.
My first and only meal yesterday was an out of date sandwich.
Anyone who knows me, or follows me online will know how open I am about living with chronic disabilities. Yet, there’s one aspect of my life that I do not talk about – I, Sarah Wright receive benefits.
It took me years to apply for benefits, because the Jobs and Benefits office, and Disability Services at Queen’s fail to routinely inform disabled students that they can access benefits, in addition to student grants and loans. The lengthy, agonising process which can take months, is set up to strip you of your dignity. The questions on the application form force you to reflect on each and every task that you can no longer do, or need help with – how many minutes it takes to dress? How many minutes it takes to shower? For someone coming to terms with the impact of living with disabilities, listing the things you struggle with is often too much, and can often prompt a relapse.
On April 14th 2017 at 3pm, I had a significant relapse with my mental health. Why? I received a phone call from ESA informing me that I was no longer entitled to the Severe Disablement Premium (a component of ESA), I would lose £250 per month, and forced to pay back over £4000. One of the outrageous criteria for receiving SDP is that you have to live alone (unless you’re a student living with other students). I sought advice from Advice NI and Citizens Advice, and submitted a Mandatory Reconsideration. This is a delaying tactic, and a significant barrier ensuring that people do not progress to an appeal, even though most appeals are successful.
The Mandatory Reconsideration failed, and I received the appeal documents last month, all 125 pages. It’s overwhelming, and complex. I’m reminded once again how the regime is designed to put people off proceeding to an appeal, and I almost gave up. My appeal is ongoing.
Loved ones and strangers reach out to me on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis and share their experiences of living with disabilities, struggling with caring responsibilities, working low-income, zero hours jobs and unpaid internships, facing or in the midst of unemployment. As the benefits regime is such a dehumanising, vile, and uncompassionate process, many do not feel able to access help so are excluded from official statistics.
I get it.
I know what it’s like to summon the strength to ask for help with food, and then feel so much shame that you can’t walk through the foodbank door, and go hungry instead. Getting the brown envelope, and ignore it for days because you know you won’t be able to cope with the contents. Having a panic attack when the electric meter beeps, and you’ve no emergency money left on it. Choosing not to eat so that you can pay a direct debit. Debt collectors at the door is infinitely more stressful, and devastating for me, than a hungry belly.
But, I am privileged. I have a computer to research benefit legislation, I have a phone to make the premium priced phone calls to the Department, I have a support network, and a compassionate GP who has never charged me for medical evidence. Others do not. For them, the current system, and the one being imposed is a death sentence.
What is even more harrowing is that every single person in Northern Ireland who is medically unfit for work, and receives the Severe Disablement Premium of Income Based ESA will lose roughly £250 a month. The SDP component of ESA has been scrapped under Universal Credit. What I believe is happening now is that people are being taken off SDP, so that the so-called mitigation package will not be offered once people transfer. This will also impact anyone who reports any change of circumstances (moving house, children move, marriage etc), and is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is what prompted me to apply to train as a volunteer welfare advisor. This is why I want to empower and amplify the voices of others. This is why I exposed those trying to exploit oppressed and vulnerable people, by charging £300 each to help with PIP appeals (looking at you Stephen Powell).
I want to continue dedicating my life to serving and representing working class people.
Austerity and the welfare cuts regime is state-sanctioned class war. As hard as it is to fight when you’re struggling to survive, we must mobilise, and others must stand in solidarity and fight for social justice alongside us.
“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief. I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less.”
If you are affected by anything in this post, please reach out to:
Lifeline (FREE 24/7) | 0808 808 8000
Citizens Advice | 0300 123 3233
Advice NI | 0800 917 4607
Welfare Changes Helpline | 0808 802 0020