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.”
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.
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.
Wheelchair Vista on the lasting effects of being doubted.
Many of us with long term conditions struggle to accept that we can no longer live life as we used to. It took me almost ten years.
I carried on working for longer than I should. A resident at the care home I managed said; “It’s doing you no good keeping on working. Why don’t you reduce your hours or stop altogether?” She saw that I could not stand for long without leaning against a wall. Staff noticed that I always relied on the lift and was often in urgent need of the loo.
When I had time off work for minor surgery it had to be extended due to massive bruising sustained in a car crash. This was soon followed by investigations for IBS and a referral for knee surgery, which culminated in my employment contract being ended.
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.