British Paralympic stars have voiced anger about the imminent disappearance of the Disability Living Allowance, a benefit they say provided them with vital support during training.
The athletes have expressed concern that they may not be eligible for its replacement – the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – which will be available to fewer claimants when it is introduced in April with tightened qualification criteria.
Disability Living Allowance (DLA), worth between £20 and £131.50 a week, is designed to help disabled people meet the extra costs of disability-related care and mobility. It is not means-tested and is available to those in or out of work.
The new system is designed to cut payments by £2.24bn annually by 2015-16, resulting in 500,000 fewer claimants. More than 2 million people will begin to be reassessed from this April to gauge their eligibility for PIP.
Sophie Christiansen, who has cerebral palsy, won three gold medals at the Games in dressage. She is worried that under the new criteria she may find herself no longer eligible for the benefit, depending on how assessors judge her ability to get around.
One of the questions the PIP assessment will ask is whether a claimant is able to walk 200 metres, with or without walking aids. If a claimant is able to walk that distance they will score no points on that part of the test, and may not be eligible for mobility payments that can be used to help pay for a car.
“Technically, I could walk over 200 metres but I’d be tired. If I lost my mobility [payment] I would lose my car. The train station is more than 200 metres away. I can’t walk to the train station and I can’t get my scooter on it. What am I going to do?” she said in an interview with Channel 4’s Dispatches, to be broadcast on Monday night.
The 200m test is one of dozens that gauge an applicant’s ability to move and organise their lives. Claimants are also tested on their ability to move 50m and 20m, and awarded points according to their capacity to get around; these points are added up to calculate eligibility.
Christiansen expressed anger at the widespread misunderstanding of the purpose of the benefit, which is designed to support people who are in work as well as those who are not working. “We use this money in order to get out the house, not think, oh, we’ve got a comfy life here, living on benefits,” she said.
The government’s assessment of the impact of reform suggests that over the next five years more than 400,000 people will no longer qualify for the higher rate mobility allowance payment that makes it possible for them to lease adapted Motability cars.
Natasha Baker is a para-equestrian who won two gold medals at the London Paralympics. She has a neurological disorder causing severe muscle weakness and cannot feel her legs. As a child, DLA allowed her to pay for riding lessons as a therapeutic sport. She says she owes her Paralympic success to the benefit.
“I went to ride and it helped my disability. So I don’t think I would have won my two gold medals without it,” she said. “[DLA] has transformed my life and got me to the Paralympics and got me to win my gold medals.”
Wheelchair basketball Paralympian Ade Adepitan said without DLA or equivalent support he would not have been able to train, because of the inaccessibility of public transport. If athletes found themselves no longer eligible for the payments, only the rich would be able to contemplate competing in the Paralympics, he said.
“A lot of our top Paralympians were labelled superhuman. In the sports arena they are superhuman but in everyday life they need just as much support as every other disabled person,” he told Dispatches. He was also uncertain about whether he would qualify for the new benefit.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said it was impossible to speculate ahead of the assessment over who might or might not be eligible for PIP.
“PIP will look at disabled people as individuals and not just label them by their health condition or impairment,” he said. “Disability Living Allowance is an outdated benefit introduced over 20 years ago and needs reform to better reflect today’s understanding of disability.”
He pointed out that recent changes to guidance meant assessors would need to consider whether claimants could perform tasks repeatedly, safely and reliably – ensuring that the test made a more rounded assessment of someone’s ability than simply judging whether they were able, for example, to walk 200 metres once.
The Paralympian and campaigner Tanni Grey-Thompson said: “People are either shown as amazing Paralympians who are competing for their country, who are incredible individuals, or benefit scroungers.
“What I don’t want to see is disabled people ghettoised and locked away like it was when I was young. The danger is if we just keep knocking disabled people back then we’ll turn the clock back 30 years.”