The Department for Work & Pensions has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to help people with any disability access its services.
However, firsthand accounts of some of the difficulties that people with learning disabilities encounter in dealing with the DWP and its delivery arms such as Jobcentre Plus have come to the attention of Community Living.
Concerns about the DWP raised by people with learning disabilities include:
- Clients having difficulties getting into local job centres if an appointment has not been made first
- DWP staff having little if any knowledge of or training in how to best support people with learning disabilities and hidden impairments
- Difficulties with the process of claiming benefits
- DWP staff failing to identify clients who should be offered additional assistance, and clients who do not identify themselves as in need of extra help.
The Equality Act 2010 gives organisations providing services to the public a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments in various circumstances.
This includes anticipating the additional needs of people with various mental/learning, physical and sensory impairments, then making adjustments to meet specific needs when these become apparent.
Broadly, these adjustments should be made to ensure as far as possible that no one is put at a disadvantage when they are accessing a service.
DWP’s own guidance
The DWP has internal guidance, covering all their programmes, services and premises, to help staff to support customers to access its services.
The guidance states: “Every time that there is customer contact by phone, online or in writing, staff must actively seek to find out if the customer needs additional support or a reasonable adjustment. What is a reasonable adjustment depends on the circumstances of the case and will be specific to the needs of the disabled customer.”
Clients should not have to repeat this information, as staff are reminded to record the details for colleagues to see when this customer returns.
DWP guidance includes a list of some of the reasonable adjustments it will make. These include adjustments that you would expect, such as providing written information in alternative formats or signers for people with a hearing impairment.
There is little guidance for staff on how to deal with people with learning disabilities, apart from checking if the claimant requires extra support to comply with processes, and to complete and then manage their claim.
While the DWP says it is able to provide general documents, such as leaflets and signs, in an easy-read format, it cannot provide individual letters, such as those confirming an individual’s benefit entitlement, in this way. And these letters can at times bamboozle the most experienced advice worker.
This appears to be a systems issue for DWP as its decision-making processes cannot cope with deviation from standard letters, such as producing easy-read decision letters. Equally, clients who drop in at job centres are turned away because the system is set up to officially only see clients who have booked an appointment by telephoning their benefit delivery centre. However, doing that takes time – assuming the client has the confidence and ability to make the call or someone to help them in the first place. Anecdotally, clients can take a chance and turn up at job centres and may still be seen without an appointment.
The assistance of an intermediary is accepted as a reasonable adjustment for people with disabilities.
However, the authority to represent a client is only for a particular issue
(eg helping with one benefit appeal) and is not treated as blanket consent to assist with any DWP matter.
This has become an issue particularly in helping clients in dealing with universal credit claims, which requires explicit consent. In addition, this does not last for the history of the whole UC claim but applies only to one particular query or piece of work.
When UC, which has been built on the assumption that claims are “digital by default”, is more widespread, there are likely to be issues for our clients. They may struggle to get to grips with dealing with an online claim system. The majority of claimants will need to log in regularly and maintain records on their claim as part of the requirements of keeping their benefit and to avoid sanctions.
“Assisted digital support” is available to UC claimants. However, they will be encouraged to be independent in managing their claim, following “staff coaching, challenging and motivating claimants to become more digitally competent”.
DWP has policies in place to fulfil its duty to make reasonable adjustments. However, how these are translated into working practices and in our clients’ day to day contact with the agency is less straightforward.
As so often in dealing with DWP and the job centre, clients may not be able to be independent as they rely on intermediaries to help them to make and maintain benefit claims.
An internal DWP document, Reasonable Adjustments, provided via a public access request, is available online at: http://tinyurl.com/y8o83ont
Charlie Callanan is an adviser and writer on welfare rights issues. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the charitable and statutory sectors