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.”
Chronic Illness Inclusion has influenced a report on disability employment by the Work and Pensions Committee
In April this year Catherine Halegave evidence to a committee of MPs. She spoke about the measures needed to create more job opportunities for people with energy-limiting chronic illness (ELCI).
Source: Disabled people in employment, Briefing Paper 7540, House of Commons Library, May 2021
In July, the Work and Pensions Committee, chaired by the Rt Hon Stephen Timms, published its report into the disability employment gap. The disability employment gap is the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in employment. It currently stands at nearly 30 percentage points.
The Committee based its recommendations on evidence from a number of experts and charities. The report includes recommendations on the collection of data about disabled people in work; employment support and Jobcentre Plus; the Access to Work scheme; the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people in work; and the disability benefits system, and more.
The fact that CII was included among the large national charities giving evidence was a big step forward for the chronic illness community. ELCI, or energy impairment, has not previously been considered by politicians or policy makers as a distinct group of disabled people, or ‘impairment group’, with specific needs.
CII were recently invited to give evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. This is the first time that evidence has been specifically sought from people living with energy limiting chronic illness – ELCI.
You can watch our Director, Catherine Hale giving evidence on YouTube.
Catherine’s speech begins approximately 1 hour and 7 minutes into the recording.
Our latest policy report on ELCI, employment and social security
The ‘I already have a job…’ report, by Catherine Hale (CII), Stef Benstead (CII), Dr Kate Hardy (Leeds University Business School) and Dr Jo Ingold (Deakin University), sets out how government, employers and the benefits system are failing millions of people in the UK with Energy Limiting Chronic Illnesses – (ELCIs).
Although one-in-three disabled people of working age experiences problems with stamina, breathing or fatigue, the report says that their needs are not reflected in the workplace, in legislation, or by disability assessments like the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
Despite ELCIs affecting almost 5 million adults in the UK, these people are hidden within disability-related policies because their lived experiences of illness and impairment is widely misunderstood, often discredited, denied and disbelieved.
Lack of knowledge about ELCIs and how reasonable adjustments should work, make it impossible for people with these conditions do paid work. The rapid move to home working during the pandemic shows that such change is possible. It is imperative that employers continue such beneficial practices.
Our Director Catherine Hale and Dr Anna Ruddock recently took part in an event organised by the School of Health Sciences at City, University of London.
In this seminar they share findings from the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project. Set up in 2017 this was a user-led research action project aiming to give a voice to those with an invisible disability. Fatigue and limited energy were found to be the most common restricting factors for those with a variety of chronic illnesses, but were not often recognised as impairments and were often treated dismissively.
Catherine Hale spoke at It’s Our Community, a conference on social care reform. Catherine explained the high prevalence of energy limiting conditions and the psychological impact of not being believed.
I was a social care user back in the 1990s. I’ve had my chronic illness for over three decades and when it was really acute, and I couldn’t wash feed myself, or go to the loo, I had a care package. But later years when things were less severe, my needs were harder to grasp because my impairment was invisible and poorly understood. The social care system completely let me down. As a disabled lone parent I had no support.
On the face of it, organisations are getting better at facilitating “flexible working”. Inevitably, some are moving faster and more innovatively than others.
Some of those others have yet to acknowledge that flexible working is an employment right that has been enshrined in UK legislation since 2014 rather than a reward for productivity. Nevertheless, you’d struggle to find an office-based organisation that hasn’t realised that flexible working is something they need to be thinking about.
So far so things-are-improving. That said, it’s a very limited definition of “flexibility” that is incorporated into most flexible working policies. What it usually means is a policy to allow employees to work outside the office. Which is important for those who benefit from it, including disabled people with energy limiting chronic illnesses (ELCI*), like me, who are well enough to work part-time but cannot physically spend all of that time in an office.
Fran Halsall on the consequences of a late diagnosis and living with multiple chronic conditions.
Humans do not cope well with uncertainty, yet I am forced to confront it every day. People like me, with multiple diagnoses, can find that each new one brings not only clarity but also an extra layer of complexity that can be hard to live with.
When trying to explain my medical situation there are six diseases/disorders to choose from. Yet I often talk about multiple sclerosis first, despite the fact that on any given day it might be the least of my problems. There are reasons for this: people have heard of MS and it is taken seriously. It is an easy shorthand for establishing why my life has not turned out as originally planned.
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.
Leonora Gunn discusses society’s role in improving the lives of the chronically ill.
The big idea of the social model is to distinguish between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’: ‘impairment’ is someone’s condition, ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’) in my case, whereas ‘disability’ describes the way that impaired people are oppressed and excluded from society on top of their impairments. This challenges the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ or changed to fit in to society, and suggests that society needs to be changed to include everyone.
This might seem like a funny thing for someone like me, with a chronic illness, to believe. Surely illnesses, like ME, need ‘fixing’? And how can it be society’s fault that I am ill?