PIP: the disability benefit that almost killed my wife

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “PIP: the disability benefit that almost killed my wife” was written by Adam Jacques, for The Guardian on Friday 10th November 2017 06.00 UTC

My wife tried to kill herself in March. She took an overdose – while I was watching TV in the next room. Cue, in short succession: 30 minutes of heart-stopping panic, a nerve-jangling ambulance trip to A&E, an admission to a secure mental health unit, and a longer stay recovering in a crisis house.

Acute episodes such as this can be a recurring reality for someone with a longstanding mental health condition. From her battles with depression and struggles to get out of bed in the mornings, to anxiety so overpowering that a trip on a bus triggers a blind panic, for my wife (let’s call her Bea) life is a titanic battle to stay afloat. She experiences overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, guilt and impulsive urges to self-harm that can flood her mind and distort her thinking. Socialising with friends is hard, while work in the past year has been out of the question. But she’s also incredibly smart, funny, kind and brave.

Mental health is complex, but something simple triggered Bea’s overdose: a devastating letter from a “decision-maker” at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), informing her that her claim for personal independence payment, a disability benefit, had been unsuccessful. She’s not the first, and won’t be the last, to experience the dismissive treatment that people with severe mental health conditions can undergo when accessing the benefits system. And PIP, as the benefit is called, is one of the worst offenders.

PIP is supposed to offset some of the extra costs of a disability. Applicants are evaluated by health workers from the private firms Atos or Capita, who forward their assessments to a DWP decision-maker – who scores you on “daily living” and “mobility” (you need at least eight points for each to qualify). Currently nearly 3 million people claim some element of PIP, and my wife expected to be one of them. As did her benefits adviser, an NHS psychiatrist and a psychologist. So, armed with a dossier of supporting medical documentation, Bea applied. That was last November. I’ve seen glaciers move faster.

The thing about accompanying someone to a PIP assessment when you have your own disability is that you’re in danger of stealing their thunder. I have cystic fibrosis, I’m undergoing a lung transplant assessment, and I’m on oxygen 24/7. Bea has a hidden disease and most people aren’t trained to recognise the signs of her inner turmoil. Which means the receptionist is staring expectantly at me, oxygen cylinder strapped to my back, rather than my wife as we approach.

The good news about my wife’s assessor is that she didn’t ask Bea why her suicide attempts hadn’t been successful – a tactic that, shockingly, several applicants have claimed their own interviewers used. The bad news was that she displayed a frostiness to put the Snow Queen to shame. Bea’s acute distress during questioning – her body rigid, lips trembling, eyes welling up – was coldly met with impatience and irritation.

Imagine admitting to a series of deeply embarrassing difficulties that you battle with on a daily basis. How, for example, venturing outside on to a bustling high street feels akin to an artillery bombardment, a barrage to your senses. Or how, on some days, your body feels so leaden and heavy you can’t even raise yourself to sit up in bed. You’d hope that they would take those difficulties seriously.

A DWP disability assessment questionnaire
A DWP disability assessment questionnaire. Photograph: Alamy

The biggest shock for Bea wasn’t that her overall PIP application was rejected, but rather the manner of that rejection: being told that her claim had been unsuccessful because, in the assessor’s opinion, she was functioning perfectly normally at the assessment – thus scoring zero points, with the pages of supporting medical evidence overlooked.

This letter struck to the very core of Bea’s difficulties. “I’ve been rejected,” she said flatly. First came disbelief, then anger, and finally a tsunami of shame. She stumbled to the bathroom and locked herself in. She went catatonic, lying on the bathroom floor in a stupor, occasionally jerking back to reality with ragged gasps of panic.

Perhaps if they had read these medical notes they might have seen how, along with a severe and complex anxiety disorder, my wife’s mental health diagnosis features a particular vulnerability towards “rejection” and “abandonment”. But in their dash to get through her case and on to the next, they did not see it – or even worse, they ignored it.

There’s nothing quite like witnessing your wife tumble through a gaping chasm, to see that there’s something rotten at the heart of a welfare assessment system. From what we experienced, the wrong people are doing the wrong assessments with the wrong tools, using incorrect assumptions. And it left me reeling: how could this happen to my wife? I discovered that her experience is just the calamitous tip of a PIP-denying iceberg.While the DWP claims it doesn’t operate quotas to save money, figures released in April, covering just six months of 2016, showed an enormous expansion in claimants receiving zero points, up to 83,000. That’s only 10,000 fewer than in the previous 12 months.

This raises huge concerns about the assessment process – especially given that, when rejected by the DWP, 65% of applicants who appeal to a tribunal get the ruling reversed. A panel of welfare experts told the work and pensions select committee earlier this year that the whole process was “inherently flawed”, with medical evidence often ignored by officials during the initial assessment.

And it gets worse. New PIP guidelines were added this year, whereby mental health claimants whose mobility is limited due to “psychological distress” are now in effect barred from gaining the mobility component. “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it,” George Freeman, the director of Theresa May’s policy unit, said on the subject of anxiety on BBC radio in February. Bea may not be on oxygen 24/7, as I am, but her condition – and her symptoms of acute psychological distress – can be just as disabling. Acute anxiety that leads to dissociation is a physiological response: your body shuts down.

Many MPs have concerns too: the Tory MP Peter Bone declared in a Commons debate in February that “I am fed up with seeing [constituents] who clearly should have been awarded PIP.” Bea’s outraged welfare rights adviser recalled a previous PIP rejection by letter of another client, when it was crudely stated that as the individual wasn’t rocking backwards and forwards during the assessment, there was clearly nothing wrong.

After Bea’s discharge, I found myself constantly checking on her, terrified she had taken another overdose. But one weekend when I was away, visiting my sister, it happened again. A close friend came to her aid. There’s no time for fighting the benefits system when your wife is in a psychiatric unit. When Bea was finally home once again, and felt ready, we slogged through the DWP’s internal “mandatory reconsideration” appeal stage, with help from her adviser. Here the rejection rate is 80%. Bone himself has called these reviews a complete waste of time.

After several months Bea’s appeal was looked at, and rejected out of hand. I want to thank the decision-maker who saw fit to nudge her up from a derisory zero points to an even more offensive one point. At this point it might be stating the obvious that there seems to be a PIP agenda against people with mental health difficulties, and it’s harming the most vulnerable. The government may be trumpeting how mental health needs to be invested in, but its core approach is fatally flawed. Why, for instance, is there no consideration for how anxiety disorders can be just as crippling for mobility as those requiring a walking stick?

I’ve asked Bea what she thinks. She tells me about the other people she’s met at the crisis house. How most of them are repeat visitors with an array of serious mental health conditions, and many can’t work. They’re considered ill enough by the local authorities and A&E to require supported living, but too well by the DWP to be in receipt of PIP.

She believes a lot of things could make a difference. Better-trained PIP staff would help: Bea’s assessor didn’t believe her claims, as she didn’t understand Bea’s condition. And changing some of the underlying DWP guidelines about mental illness would make a big difference, such as rolling back the recent PIP changes on mental health and the mobility component.

And of course, writing to your MP with your own experiences and difficulties: Bea had written to hers, on another government benefit called ESA, and they intervened. Our PIP complaint letter is up next. She also wanted me to write this article, despite the unwelcome attention it might bring her. I think she is very courageous.

There is another thing claimants can do: persevere. Some time after Bea’s second emphatic DWP rejection, we filed a motion to go to tribunal. Tribunals are independently assessed. They carefully read through the supporting medical notes, and they don’t have political agendas: most people who go on to appeal here win. The DWP doesn’t like to be made to look like an idiot so, lo and behold, with the full weight of a tribunal imminent, they finally had a thorough look through Bea’s case. I spoke to a DWP official on the phone who finally acknowledged my wife’s difficulties and offered an avalanche of points and an award of the daily-living component if we withdrew the appeal. I expressed my frustration at an utterly broken process. But at last Bea had her offer of PIP. That’s the difference perseverance can make.

The true measure of any civilised society is in how compassionately it treats its most vulnerable members. Judged by how PIP claimants such as Bea are being treated, ours is failing.

• Adam Jacques is a freelance journalist

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Philip Hammond urged to reform universal credit to help younger voters

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Philip Hammond urged to reform universal credit to help younger voters” was written by Richard Partington, for The Guardian on Friday 10th November 2017 00.01 UTC

Philip Hammond is being urged to use the budget to reform universal credit to support younger voters, amid growing concerns over the government’s flagship benefits programme.

A report by the influential Resolution Foundation thinktank says the chancellor should reverse cuts to universal credit and unfreeze working age benefits to address the poor economic prospects facing millennials, when he sets out his plans on 22 November.

The Conservatives have come under increasing pressure to woo younger voters, with budget seen as a key opportunity for the party.

The thinktank said more than half of the gains from unfreezing working age benefits from next April would go to millennials. It said a low-income family with two children could gain as much as £315 a year, costing the Treasury as much as £1.9bn in 2018-19 to reverse the freeze put in place for four years from April 2016 by George Osborne.

It said the chancellor could support younger families by restoring work allowances under the universal credit regime for those with children back to the levels they were set at before 2016, at a cost of about £2.1bn. Almost half of the gains would go to younger voters.

The report comes amid growing concerns over the implementation of universal credit, with food banks warning they will struggle to meet the soaring need for emergency food supplied from low-income families this Christmas due to the six-week waiting period for those awaiting benefits payments.

The suggestions come as the Conservatives look for new ways to support younger voters, who they are at risk of losing. Theresa May moved to address the problem at the party’s autumn conference, pledging to increase the student loan repayment threshold, while Hammond earmarked an extra £10bn for the Tories’ flagship help to buy scheme for first-time homebuyers.

Conservatives including Nadhim Zahawi have suggested targeted tax cuts for younger people in recent weeks. However, the Resolution Foundation said such a step would be a bad idea due to the costs involved, while disproportionately helping wealthier youngsters.

The report finds cutting the basic rate of income tax to 15% for the under-30s would cost about £3.2bn by 2021-22, while such a move would also lead to the richest 10% of twentysomethings benefiting by twice as much as the poorest in this age group.

The thinktank suggested the chancellor could raise about £1bn a year by scrapping an exemption for employee and self-employed national insurance contributions (NICs) for workers at or above the state pension age. However, it notes that Hammond is unlikely to want to act on NICs, after he was forced into a U-turn on changes for the self-employed in the March budget.

Yet equalising the tax treatment of workers of different ages is progressive, according to the report, as four-fifths of the revenues would come from the richest fifth of pensioners, with most unaffected.

Laura Gardiner, senior policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “The chancellor should remember the bigger picture and deliver a budget that tackles one of the biggest challenges Britain faces – our failure to deliver living standards progress for young people today.”

The research comes as the chancellor faces increasingly limited room for manoeuvre in the budget, with the government’s independent spending watchdog set to downgrade the outlook for the public finances due to the weaker than forecast productivity of British workers.

Accountancy firm PwC estimates Hammond has about £3bn less available to ease austerity than he had in March this year, before the expected downgrade to the public finances by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Although it said the deficit, which is the gap between government spending and tax receipts, is due to be about £10bn less than estimated for this year, the consultants reckon public borrowing will be about £7bn higher than initially forecast by 2021-22.

Andrew Sentance, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee who is now a senior economic adviser at PwC, said: “The government should respond to this productivity challenge in the budget and beyond with measures to boost skills, infrastructure development and innovation. But this has to be a long-term industrial strategy – there are no quick or easy fixes to increasing productivity growth.”

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One in every 200 people in UK are homeless, according to Shelter

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “One in every 200 people in UK are homeless, according to Shelter” was written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th November 2017 00.01 UTC

More than 300,000 people in Britain – equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes, according to figures released by the charity Shelter.

Using official government data and freedom of information returns from local authorities, it estimates that 307,000 people are sleeping rough, or accommodated in temporary housing, bed and breakfast rooms, or hostels – an increase of 13,000 over the past year.

Total of homeless people in Britain

Shelter said the figures were an underestimate as they did not include people trapped in so-called “hidden homelessness”, who have nowhere to live but are not recorded as needing housing assistance, and end up “sofa surfing”.

London, where one in every 59 people are homeless, remains Britain’s homelessness centre. Of the top 50 local authority homelessness “hotspots”, 18 were in Greater London, with Newham, where one in 27 residents are homeless, worst hit.

However, while London’s homeless rates have remained largely stable over the past year, the figures show the problem is becoming worse in leafier commuter areas bordering the capital, such as Broxbourne, Luton, and Chelmsford.

Big regional cities have also seen substantial year-on-year increases in the rate of homelessness. In Manchester, one in 154 people are homeless (compared with one in 266 in 2016); in Birmingham one in 88 are homeless (119); in Bristol one in 170 are affected (199).

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “It’s shocking to think that today, more than 300,000 people in Britain are waking up homeless. Some will have spent the night shivering on a cold pavement, others crammed into a dingy hostel room with their children. And what is worse, many are simply unaccounted for.

“On a daily basis, we speak to hundreds of people and families who are desperately trying to escape the devastating trap of homelessness. A trap that is tightening thanks to decades of failure to build enough affordable homes and the impact of welfare cuts.”

Although public perceptions of homelessness are dominated by rough sleeping, Shelter points out that the single leading cause of recorded homelessness is the ending of a private tenancy, accounting for three in every 10 cases, and often triggered by a combination of soaring rents and housing benefit cuts.

Shelter’s figures show that as of April this year 281,000 people were living in temporary accommodation in Britain. A further 21,300 were in single homeless hostels or social services housing, while 4,500 were rough sleeping.

Number of people sleeping rough

The government has set great store by its Homelessness Reduction Act, which comes into force next year. This requires local authorities to actively take steps to prevent households at risk of homelessness tipping into crisis.

However, local authorities are concerned that funding for their new duties is insufficient, at a time when pressures caused by housing shortages, rising rents and benefit cuts are increasing pressure on their housing departments.

Shelter warned earlier this year that more than a million households are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020. Rising numbers of families on low incomes are struggling to pay even the lowest available private sector rents in many areas, leading to ever higher levels of eviction and homelessness.

It calls for more genuinely affordable homes to be built, an end to the local housing allowance freeze, and measures to increase security for tenants in the private sector.

A National Audit Office inquiry in September criticised the government for failing to get a grip on homelessness, despite recorded numbers rising every year since 2010. It said local housing allowance cuts helped fuel the crisis, which costs the taxpayer about £1bn a year. A DCLG spokesperson said: “We are determined to tackle all forms of homelessness, which includes making sure people in temporary accommodation are getting support to keep a roof over their heads.

“We’re investing £950m by 2020 to support these efforts, and bringing in the Homelessness Reduction Act. This requires councils to provide early support to people at risk of being left without anywhere to go.”

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‘How many have to die before this Government realises they’re killing vulnerable people?’

The mother of a woman who died cold and alone after being denied sickness benefits has launched a scathing attack against the Tory Government, asking how many people have to lose their lives before they realise “they are killing vulnerable people”.

Linda’s daughter Elaine Morrall was found still wearing her coat and scarf “because she wouldn’t put her heating on until her kids came home from school”.

The 38-year-old, from Runcorn in Cheshire, reportedly had her benefits stopped on numerous occasions and wasn’t “deemed ill enough for Employment and Support Allowance”, despite having spent recent months in intensive care.

Elaine is said to have suffered with depression and an eating disorder.

In a desperate plea to a local councillor, shared on social media, her mum Linda wrote: “Forgive me if this is not your constituency. Please forward to the correct person if not & let me know who it should be.

“My daughter lived in Boston ave. She died on the afternoon of 2 November 2017 at home on her own. She was 38yrs.

“In the cold with her coat & scarf on. Because she wouldn’t put her heating on until her kids came home from school. Why ?? Because she couldn’t afford it.

“Because she was severely depressed. Suffered from eating disorder & many other problems for many years.

“Mainly due to authoritarians of 1 form or another. I can give you details. Was in & out of hospital in recent months in intensive care.

“But was deemed not ill enough for ESA. Had her benefits stopped numerous times, which in turn stopped her housing benefit.

“No income but expected to be able to pay full rent. Was told being in intensive care was not sufficient reason for failing to attend a universal credit interview.

“I went to the job centre to inform them that she couldn’t attend. But benefits stopped again.

“Uncaring housing taking her to court. She’s due to go to court on monday. Is being dead now enough reason. Is that what’s had to happen to prove she was ill??

“How many people have got to die before this government realises they are killing vulnerable people??

“What are you and your fellow councillors going to do to protect your constituents??”

‘Thousands’ of people have now donated money to support the family through a popular crowd-funding website.

Single mum Rebecca Wolfe set up the page after being moved by the tragedy, and has helped to raise £790 for the family. The cause has now closed after reaching its target.

The single 40-year-old mum-of-two, who cares for her autistic son and was diagnosed with kidney cancer when she was younger, said: “It upset me so much thinking about this woman’s children.

“It struck a chord with me. When I was a lot younger I was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

“My children were only young and every waking moment I was worried about who was going to look after them. That was my worse nightmare.

“You can give your sympathies, prayers and thoughts but that doesn’t help the family.

“I just want this woman to know that we are trying to help in a small way. I didn’t expect anyone to donate but it’s gone massive.”

Jonathan Horsfall, Halton Housing Trust debt recovery manager said: “We always follow strict procedures around arrears. We strive to find solutions with our customers and have intensive support workers who enable us to do so where possible.

“Our support services are on offer to those who we know are in arrears, and are always reached out to for support.

“If customers are concerned about arrears we always encourage anyone to get in touch with us as early as possible in the arrears process so we can do all we can to help.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Morrall’s family at this difficult time.

“We understand that people can’t always attend appointments, which is why we will re-arrange alternative times.

“Assessment decisions are made with consideration of all the information provided, including supporting evidence from a GP or medical specialist.

“Anyone who disagrees with a decision can appeal.”

Food banks warn of struggle to cope this Christmas due to universal credit

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Food banks warn of struggle to cope this Christmas due to universal credit” was written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 7th November 2017 00.01 UTC

Food banks have said they will struggle to meet the soaring need for emergency food supplies from low-income families this Christmas as hardship caused by the six-week waiting period for universal credit payment starts to bite.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, said demand for its parcels in areas where full service universal credit is in operation had increased by an average of 30% since April, compared with 12% in sample areas not yet covered by the new benefit system.

Releasing its mid-year figures, the trust said universal credit waits, reduced disability entitlements, the freeze on benefit increases and low pay had driven up referrals to its food banks by 13%, putting it on course to deliver record levels of food aid this year.

The trust, whose 428 food bank centres have given out 587,000 three-day emergency food packages since April, called on ministers to take urgent action to reduce the minimum 42-day waiting time for a first universal credit payment.

“The simple truth is that even with the enormous generosity of our donors and volunteers, we’re concerned food banks could struggle to meet demand this winter if critical changes to benefit delivery aren’t made now,” said Mark Ward, Trussell’s interim chief executive.

Trussell Trust graphic

Meanwhile, research by one of the UK’s biggest social landlords estimates that the mandatory six-week wait for a first universal credit payment will put more than 23,000 low-income UK families at risk of destitution in the run-up to Christmas.

About 41,000 children live in households due to move on to universal credit from mid-November, leaving parents struggling to afford seasonal treats and gifts as well as basic living essentials, the Peabody Trust housing association said.

Brendan Sarsfield, Peabody’s chief executive, said: “Six weeks’ minimum wait for payment is too long and is pushing the poorest into greater debt. The government should pause the rollout and reduce the waiting period to two weeks. This could ensure 40,000 households get some money in time for Christmas.”

About 118 jobcentres in areas including Birmingham, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Lambeth, Swansea, Brighton, Dundee, Newport, Gateshead, Waltham Forest, Reading and Oxfordshire are scheduled to move on to the full universal credit system over the next few weeks.

In the absence of official forecasts, Peabody used recent data on universal credit starts and family types to calculate that 39% of the estimated 60,000 households coming on to the system in November and December would contain children.

There is no official data on numbers of children for each universal credit household, so Peabody used the UK household average of 1.74 to reach the figure of 41,000 children. It added: “Our estimate may be underestimating the actual number here, as families are taking a growing proportion of the increase now that the full service is being rolled out.”

The chair of the all-party Commons work and pensions committee, Frank Field, whose Birkenhead constituency will shift on to universal credit this month told the Guardian that waits for the new benefit would push many families “to the brink of destitution” in the run-up to Christmas.

Field said in a Commons debate last month that the main food bank in Birkenhead was looking to stockpile an extra 15 tonnes of supplies to enable it to manage the expected explosion in demand following the arrival of universal credit. Ministers replied that they did not expect food bank use to increase.

The Department for Work and Pensions said there was no causal link between food bank use and welfare reform and it would be “misleading” to suggest so. It described the Peabody figures as “speculative”. A spokesperson said: “We’re clear that advance payments are widely available from the start of anyone’s universal credit claim and urgent cases are fast-tracked so no one should be without funds.”

However, a recent report by the work and pensions committee on universal credit concluded that advance loans offered only limited help because claimants were able to borrow the equivalent of up to only two weeks’ universal credit income to help them through the six-week waiting period.

The committee’s inquiry into universal credit, published last week, received copious evidence from landlords and claimants showing that the mandatory 42-day wait leaves many people struggling to pay rent and meet basic living costs. About a fifth wait longer than six weeks for a first payment, while an estimated 85% do not have a month’s worth of savings to tide them over.

There are about 600,000 people on full service universal credit, and by the time it is fully rolled out in 2022 an estimated 7 million are expected to claim it. Universal credit was designed to simplify the benefits system by bundling six existing entitlements – including unemployment benefit, housing benefit and working tax credit – into one. However, the long-delayed programme, which is five years behind schedule, has run into huge criticism as a result of huge cuts, administrative errors and complexity.

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Disabled people worry about telling employers of their condition

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Disabled people worry about telling employers of their condition” was written by Mattha Busby, for The Guardian on Monday 6th November 2017 00.01 UTC

Almost half of disabled people have worried about making employers aware of their impairment or condition, research by the disability charity Scope has found. This has prompted calls for employers to create environments where disabled people are more comfortable “coming out”.

The charity found that 48% of disabled people were unaware of their rights as a disabled employee, which could suggest employers are not doing enough to inform their employees of their entitlements.

More than one in four disabled people also believe they have missed out on being offered a job because of their condition or impairment.

One woman applied for more than 100 jobs without success but suddenly began being offered interviews after not disclosing she was disabled in applications, Scope discovered.

A GP was discouraged from using her wheelchair at work, which would result in missing meetings in parts of the building she could not reach wearing her leg braces.

Others reported that they had been regularly sneered at and encountered discrimination in the workplace.

The treatment of disabled people may be responsible for the startling rate at which they are leaving the labour market: for every 100 who move in to work, 114 leave.

Employers can only help employees, though, if they are aware of their condition.

“If they make the first move as an employer you feel more comfortable going to them if you have a problem,” said an account manager who suffers from cerebral palsy. “They can’t support you with anything if they’re not aware.”

It is hoped that the report will foster a greater openness about disabilities and challenges people face at work and in life.

The Scope chief executive, Mark Atkinson, said: “This report should be a wake-up call for businesses as it exposes the real challenges thousands of disabled workers face every day when trying to access the vital support they are entitled to.

“We need to drastically transform workplace culture so all employees are confident requesting support and can discuss their impairment or condition on their own terms.”

Employers who don’t make their workplace genuinely inclusive, he argues, will lose hugely valuable members of their team because they are unable to stay or progress in that job.

“We can and must solve this problem, but employers and the government must act now to ensure workplaces are truly inclusive and HR policies on equality aren’t just a document on a shelf.”

Emma Satyamurti, a partner in the employment law team at law firm Leigh Day, which sponsored the research, said: “This research clearly identifies the need for employers to understand the experiences of their disabled members of staff better and to create a culture where they feel safe to openly discuss their needs.

“All companies – large and small – should be taking steps to review and build on their practices and policies so disabled people are able to confidently access the right support to carry out their work and thrive in their careers.”

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