“I was diagnosed with severe Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2008 and am now in my late fifties. Prior to the diagnosis I had just started my own aromatherapy business after over 30 years of working, mainly within the corporate sector. It is very sobering to be told you have a chronic medical condition managed by a cocktail of drugs taken for the rest of your life.

I received Incapacity Benefit until transfer to the new Employment Support Allowance (ESA) system and was placed in the Work Related Activity Group of contribution based ESA for one year. When I queried why I had not been placed in the Support Group, given the medical information available, the contact centre advisor told me that if I disagreed with the decision I could go to Appeal but that my ESA would be reduced by over £25 a week and it could take up to 18 months before an Appeal would be heard. I reluctantly decided not to go ahead as I felt this process would be far too stressful.

I had to attend mandatory monthly meetings with a personal adviser at the JobCentre which later became two-monthly by telephone. These meetings were a complete waste of time and resource. They were of no help whatsoever and merely a ‘tick box’ exercise.

As expected the ESA stopped in late 2012. The problems really started here. I was given contradictory information regarding a questionnaire I had been asked to complete from the contact centre personnel which, two months later, culminated in a letter from DWP informing me that I was classed as ‘fit for work’. This was very distressing as I had made huge efforts during the previous months to sort the problems out.

I wrote to my MP in January 2013 as I was extremely frustrated and angry. I am of the firm opinion that due solely to his kind intervention I was contacted by a senior official who told me that almost all of the information I had been given by the contact centres was incorrect. He also told me, in his view, the original decision not to put me in the Support Group was wrong given the available medical evidence and that he would place me in the Support Group of ESA for three years.

It is an appalling system and I am already starting to worry about whether I will continue to receive Disability Living Allowance (which I use for taxis to my various hospital appointments and some of the drugs I take) as a reassessment is due next year.

Benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ is a no-brainer and it infuriates me when politicians and the media portray people in a derogatory manner because their circumstances dictate that they have to apply for social security payments to get them through the bad times. Enough with the rhetoric. Try this maxim on for size ‘There but for the grace of God goes I.’ Would you really want this as a lifestyle choice – I think not.”

Listen to Isobella’s interview recorded in May 2015

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