One Month Before Heartbreak: Disability cuts come to the crunch

TBofB_Heartbreak-FINAL-FLATblog.jpgEnabled by Design is proud to support the One Month Before Heartbreak campaign. The brainchild of The Broken of Britain
(AKA @BrokenOfBritain), which describes itself as a “non-party
political campaign providing advocacy for physically & mentally
disabled people of Great Britain and carers.” By sharing the stories of
people whose lives are affected by disability, they aim to protest
against the swingeing cuts to disability related benefits and services
being proposed.

We’d just like to say a very big WELL DONE to our team mate Kaliya Franklin (AKA
@BendyGirl) and her Broken of Britain crew for putting in the time, energy
and hard work to make this happen. We really do appreciate it!!!

It’s so important to make each
and every person’s voice heard, together we can make a
difference!

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Every time I hear the media or the general public refer to people who claim benefits as “scroungers”, their ignorance and lack of empathy saddens me. To me, being in receipt of benefits is most definitely not a lifestyle choice and this is why…

My name is Denise Stephens, I’m 32 years old, I live in London and I happen to have a highly active form of relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS). After numerous years of unexplained symptoms, I was finally diagnosed in 2003, at the age of 24, and my life changed forever.

tweet.jpgMy life prior to MS was relatively average, I worked hard to gain ten GCSEs, four A-levels and secure a place at the University of Manchester to read Chemistry. Three years of blood, sweat and tears later, I was the proud owner of a first class honours degree. Some might say that the world was my oyster…

Having been fascinated by the world of forensic science since college, I set out to pursue a career in this highly competitive field. I was lucky enough to secure a position as a forensic toxicologist, working for a well known London University. Just over two years later I was offered a position with another organisation, where I would train as a court reporting officer. Little did I know that all of my dreams; independence, career, lifestyle, long-term relationship and so many more, would all be lost within a five year period.

At the beginning of 2004 my health took a turn for the worse, I had a disabling series of relapses which left me barely able to walk, manipulate objects with my hands or see out of my right eye. While my friends were focusing on climbing the career ladder and going out clubbing, I was finding it difficult to do even the most mundane of things, such as hold a knife and fork to feed myself. To say my self-esteem took a battering is an understatement.

Time went by and I was gradually able to build myself back up, with the help and support of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and other health care professionals. But this isn’t the end of the story, the following years were divided between periods of illness, hospital admissions and rehabilitation.

I was forced to give up my career, which badly knocked my confidence. I come from a background with a strong work ethic, so without a job I felt worthless. I desperately wanted to return to work, if not my original career, something else even. I’d always worked throughout my education; paper round, shop assistant, waitress, bar work and administration, no job was below me. If only my health would allow me to do any of one of these things, I would have done it.

I reluctantly applied for benefits and slowly felt my independence, and self-worth slip away, only to be replaced by the feeling of isolation and loss. Nobody would be interested in speaking to me, what was I supposed to say when people ask “what do you do?”

I desperately tried to return to work, but attempts were either, at best, short lived due to a deterioration in health and hospital admission or, at worst, a complete and utter false start.

Despite having a first class degree at a red brick university, it appeared that I was unemployable. Looking for part-time work to meet my needs, was easier said than done. I would apply for general administration positions that required GCSE grades and despite the two ticks disability symbol, previous admin experience and a first class degree would receive no offer of an interview. I repeatedly visited the Jobcentre Plus for advice and was told to dumb down my CV. This definitely wasn’t what I envisaged when studying so hard for my degree.

Being stuck at home with little to occupy my mind was slowly driving me up the wall, so I decided to go back to university. I was extremely frank about my condition and what it meant I could and couldn’t do, but when push came to shove I received very little support, being told that the disability advisors were far too busy dealing with the undergraduates to be able to help. Yet again within a few weeks, I’d had another relapse and was back in hospital.

After years of what felt like hitting my head against a brick wall, the number of hospital admissions well into double figures and deteriorating health, I finally gave up trying to fit into the employment “norm”. I just didn’t and couldn’t fit in and reasonable adjustments were rarely seen as important or necessary.

Slowly the Denise Stephens I and others knew disappeared, I felt useless and lost without the sense of purpose that comes from having a focus in life. Compounded by this, as well as mounting financial pressures which made me feel like a burden, my long-term relationship broke down and I became homeless. Not quite the stuff that fairy tales are made of…

So why am I telling you all of this, I hear you ask?!? Well, it’s in the hope that you’ll realise that no-one is guaranteed an easy and straightforward life. Health is something that many of us take for granted, but when it’s gone there’s little that can be done about it. There is no cure for MS, there is no walking away from this and I will have to manage my condition the best I can from day-to-day for the rest of my life. I did not ask to have my world turned upside down, it just happened as it could to anyone else. I did everything that society expected of me; studied, worked, paid my taxes, but now I feel like I’m a second class citizen because I have to claim benefits as my health doesn’t allow me to hold down a typical 9 ’til 5 job.

The proposed cuts to disability related benefits and services, feels like yet another kick in the teeth for those whose health and disability has already affected their lives and aspirations immeasurably. To carry out these cuts is irresponsible, as they will destroy the very support framework designed to keep the most vulnerable people in society safe and well, contrary to promises made by the government.  

This is NOT a lifestyle choice! Do not treat it that way…