Reading through the free-form responses to our Women’s Heath Survey has been a heartbreaking task. The stories from women throughout England were both shocking, but unsurprising in equal measure. Shocking because of the difficulties in getting a diagnosis, (and these were about pre-pandemic experiences) either because of a GP refusing to take symptoms seriously or because of a lack of suitable specialist clinics. Unsurprising, because these are stories I hear daily from my friends and colleagues in CII. Why do women with chronic pain in Suffolk not have accesses to the same services as women in London? Why can you get a diagnosis as an adult for EDS if you live in one county, but not if you live in the next-door county?
We received 1,871 responses that covered 6 different aspects of the difficulties that women with chronic illnesses face. The overall theme was that of medical ableism, a failure to understand our conditions or listen to our experiences.
These quotes are the voices of those women, they deserve to be heard.
Being disbelieved seems to be a rite of passage for so many women with chronic illness and/or chronic pain. These are just a few of the responses that were given to our question about the impact of being disbelieved;
“Being disbelieved makes you question everything you know about yourself and your conditions and leads into a dystopia which undermines everything in your life.”
“I have developed anxiety about being believed & taken seriously especially with professionals, I struggle with a sense that I am seen as worthless by society in general. I have become apologetic and unassertive.”
Disbelief has a very negative impact on psychological well being;
“I used to be extremely independent and I’m finding my self-esteem has gone down a lot since I’ve needed help. There are such a huge amount of physical obstacles in the way when you have to use a mobility scooter or a wheelchair, it makes you feel that society doesn’t want you around and sometimes it makes you feel like you don’t want to be around.”
Self-blame is also common;
“It took a long time and a lot of heartache to get my head around the fact that my life didn’t look like I thought it would, and the fact that I was constantly being gaslighted by medical professionals and especially the DWP meant that I did and still do struggle with the idea that this illness is somehow my fault.”
The recent inquest into the tragic death of Philippa Day has once again, shown the inadequacies and cruelty of a benefits system that damages the mental health of claimants.
The disability benefits system engenders a culture of systemic disbelief towards claimants, creating a hostile environment towards the very people it is supposed to support. Reports of claimants who complete suicide or starve to death as a result of traumatic assessments or benefit sanctions do not appear to have prompted any change in policy or procedure by successive ministers in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
CII has written to the BBC to explain why their TV programme caused hurt and distress to disabled people with invisible chronic illness, as well as other hidden impairments.
The Chronic Illness Inclusion Project’s letter to the team behind the controversial episode in the ‘Crip Tales’ series, ‘The Real Deal’ (BBC Four) is co-signed by other Disabled People’s Organisations and service user and patient-led organisations.
The letter asks for constructive dialogue with the team, and others at the BBC, to ensure disabled people with non-visible impairments are portrayed in a positive light in future programming.
Chronic Illness Inclusion spoke at an event hosted by Disabled People Against Cuts to discuss the need to reinvigorate the social model of disability.
This blog piece follows a discussion on the 6th of July 2020 in response to Ellen Clifford’s new book ‘The War on Disabled People’ from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) about ‘Reinvigorating the Social Model of Disability’, to which Catherine was invited. You can watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
We completely agree with Ellen Clifford that the social model of disability is intended to be a tool for uniting disabled people to take collective action. Now is a time for such unity if ever there was one. The global response to COVID-19, on top of ten years of austerity in the UK, has shown just how little disabled lives matter to the political classes. However, people with chronic illnesses have struggled to unite with other disabled people under the banner of the social model.
Catherine founded the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project as a programme of action research aimed at developing an advocacy movement for people with chronic illness. The project discovered that, although people with what we call ‘energy limiting chronic illnesses’ (ELCI) are potentially a big constituency of disabled people – 32% of working age disabled people in the UK experience impairment of stamina, breathing or fatigue – there is a disconnect between us and the rest of the UK Disabled People’s Movement (DPM).
Stef Benstead discusses her new book on welfare reform and the treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain.
#IsItOk that disabled people have written books about the harm that the UK government is doing to us?
In the modern hegemony of identity politics, a person is only allowed to comment on something if they have direct experience of it. So one answer is that yes, it is okay that sick and disabled people write about issues affecting them, because in fact they’re the only people who have the right to do so.
But the reality is that, whilst it is okay that sick and disabled people write about their experiences as sick and disabled people, it is not okay that those experiences are so overwhelmingly negative in breadth and depth. It’s one thing when one part of your life goes wrong and everything else is fine: you can probably manage. It’s quite another when every part is wrong: your health, your house, your income, your medical care, your local area, your support to live in your home, your support to get out of your home.
Victoria Clutton highlights the barriers to work faced by the chronically ill.
In May, I started my first ever job which I found through a wonderful charity called Astriid. My job is five hours a week, working from home, with no set hours and amazingly supportive co-workers – the holy grail of employment opportunities for the chronically ill. Even so, it’s been a huge adjustment and ongoing struggle. A few years ago I was declared fit for work despite protestations by my doctor and two other medical specialists. The experience was a year of ludicrous horror before I eventually relapsed badly enough for it to be worth re-applying for benefits. These contrasting experiences have caused me to reflect on the changes that are necessary to allow more chronically ill people to work.
Fionn critiques the benefits system’s failure to support chronically ill, self-employed people
I’m exactly the same as anyone else who’s gathered up a lifetime of training and experience. I have a lot of skills. People come to me for advice. They offer me work. They offer me money to do that work.
And I can do the work, but it makes me ill. I don’t mind; I’ve always been ill, and I love my work. I just have to stop every now and again till I get better, then I can do some more.
Now that I’m older, those pauses have got longer. I might work for five months and have to stop for another four. The trouble is that when the income stops, the bills don’t. I live alone, so I have to claim benefits.
Ella Sumpter talks about fluctuating mobility levels and reactions to her wheelchair use.
I have been given a power wheelchair that used to belong to my wife’s grandfather. I am very grateful. It will be very useful when I have to go to the local shops, or be somewhere where I am expected to stand around or stay on my feet a long time. It will also mean that I can go to protest rallies which I have so far been left out of.
I have a problem though. I have a very large psychological barrier to actually using it.
So what is the problem stopping me using it? Put simply, fear. Fear of what people will think and say, and embarrassment at people seeing me in it. I’ve already blogged about using a walking stick and my fear of abuse as well as fear of people thinking I use a stick to look more ill and claim extra benefits.
Sarah Campbell asks whether chronic illness needs its own set of responses to social security, employment and social care.
I have a combination of both a chronic illness and a progressive muscle condition, offering me insight into both “worlds” of invisible fluctuating illness and visible physical impairment. Some issues are extremely different while others are shared. But so far I’ve found that accessing support is often biased toward purely “traditional” physical impairments.
As a wheelchair user, there are many access barriers ranging from getting an adequate wheelchair in the first place, to housing, transport, social care etc. But the law is generally on our side, precisely because disabled people fought for those rights over the past decades.
Catherine Hale considers how half a lifetime of chronic illness has changed her understanding of the term ‘disabled’.
I’ve been sick for nearly 30 years. That’s the whole of my adult life. I always thought of myself as ‘disabled’ in the sense of being very incapacitated. During my bedbound phase I couldn’t wash, feed myself, go to the toilet or write my own name; nor could I read, watch TV or have a conversation.
But I never thought of myself as ‘disabled’ in the political sense used by the disabled people’s movement. That is, I never thought the disadvantages I suffered in not having a job, a career, or a social life were due to an infringement of my rights. It didn’t make sense to blame my profound isolation on other people or organisations excluding me unnecessarily or treating me unfairly.