The benefits system is probably one of the most controversial topics out there, and seems to be considered in purely black and white terms. I’m often surprised how many people dismiss everybody on Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) as lazy, selfish spongers who the employed are forced into supporting. I know a great many people on JSA (although I’m not on it myself) and they are all working VERY hard, both to find a job and to avoid falling into the deep pit of depression that emerges after so many rejections. What most people seem to forget is that to be eligible for JSA you must spend a minimum of thirty hours a week looking for work. Does that sound like a lazy lifestyle to you?
I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, Dyspraxia and Anxiety Disorder. Before I even considered going in for job seekers I was already claiming Disabled Students Allowance, Disabled Living Allowance and Housing Benefit to help me through the challenges of daily life. I’m constantly warned to keep quiet about my benefits, as people with a limited understanding of disabilities will think it’s unfair that I get money from the government for doing nothing. Isn’t it also unfair that I’m living with two lifelong disabilities?
My situation could be much worse, and I am incredibly grateful for all the help and support I receive. But society’s attitude towards benefits and support for people with disabilities terrifies me. The cuts being made to the benefits system terrify me. Disabled Student’s Allowance (funding for special equipment and support workers that made it possible for me to complete my degree) is being drastically cut back, and other social security benefits are becoming increasingly difficult to claim. We could cut back on MPs expenses or the money we spend on warfare. But instead, the government has chosen to take money away from the weak, the vulnerable and the less able.
That is bad enough, but lately I have noticed a great deal of hatred and abuse being directed at those of us on benefits. Not just from the government, but from ordinary people who I pass on the street every day. Most of this anger seems to result from a lack of knowledge of just how difficult life on benefits can be. I cannot speak for those of you on JSA, or those of you with disabilities I have not been diagnosed with. But I can speak for myself. The following is a list of ten things I wish everybody knew about autism and the benefits system. I hope it will encourage a little more tolerance and understanding.
1) Filling out forms is just as stressful as having a full time job.
As I mentioned earlier, anyone on JSA is required to spend a minimum of thirty hours a week filling out job applications. That’s a pretty big commitment. There are also countless forms to be filled out if you require disability or sickness benefits, which makes very little sense, as being disabled makes this process so much harder. I remember one bad year when I was applying for housing benefits. My application kept getting lost in the post or processed incorrectly. Eventually I found myself on skype with my parents, pleading through tears that they let me stop applying, as the stress that processing the forms was causing was far more detrimental to my health than a loss of a few pounds a month.
2) Filling out forms is incredibly detrimental to our self-esteem.
It’s hard to explain the process of applying for disability benefits or the extra support autistic people require on a daily basis. Before you receive any help (financial or otherwise) you have to do a needs assessment. In a nut shell, this involves sitting down with a complete stranger and listing everything you struggle with or have ever struggled with. I believe this process contributes towards the low self-esteem and depression so many people on the autism spectrum struggle with. Instead of explaining what we require to live a normal life we are forced to list each and every one of our faults, over and over and over. It’s almost impossible to go through that process and remain positive about yourself.
3) Successful job interviews depend on good social skills.
Successful job interviews depend on good social skills, and autism is a social awareness and communications disability. We are bound to have poorer social skills than neurotypical job applicants. That doesn’t mean we won’t excel at the job we’re applying for. It just means we’re likely to come across as eccentric or socially awkward during job interviews, particularly as autistic behaviour (like rocking and flapping) seems to be exacerbated by nervousness. Sadly, few employers know enough about autism to make allowances for this kind of behaviour.
4) Most people in the workplace know nothing about autism.
Most people in the workplace know nothing about autism, which means it can be just as hard for autistic people to stay in their job as it is for them to find it in the first place. A friend of mine was recently fired from a sandwich shop after her first day because she could not cook fast enough. She tried to explain that her disability causes poor co-ordination and once she’d got used to her surroundings she’d catch up, but her boss just wasn’t willing to be patient.
5) Autism is an invisible illness.
I think the hardest part of having autism is that I struggle daily, but nobody can see my disability. People often think I’m being rude or difficult, when I’m simply distressed because I don’t understand the situation I’m in. When I’m honest about the benefits I claim, most people assume I’m being a sponger or somehow tricking the government into giving me money because they just can’t see that I’m disabled.
6) Benefits claimers are not automatically spongers.
Given the choice, I would much rather have a normal brain and work full time than carry on claiming disability benefits. But there is no choice. You have no idea what the circumstances are that lead someone to claim JSA, disability or sickness benefits. Please think twice before you dismiss them as a lazy sponger.
7) Autism services cost money.
Everyone on the autism spectrum will need services that are geared specifically towards their disability at some point in their life. A couple of years ago I had an adult autism assessment. The assessment consisted of four one hour sessions, and cost over a thousand pounds. Living with autism can be very expensive, which is why autistic people are eligible for disability benefits in the first place.
8) All the money in the world won’t make up for living with a disability.
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. No matter how much money I receive for my disability, I would gladly give it all up if it meant having a normal, healthy body.
9) With the right support we can live a healthy, normal life without being a burden to society.
With the right combination of support I am capable of living a normal lifestyle that enables me to give something back to society. The last time I didn’t receive sufficient support I became hospitalised, and there was talk of me being sectioned. Imagine if I had been placed in a mental hospital, or in a group home. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to work, and would probably have required constant supervision. This would cost far more money than the meagre benefits I currently receive. I’m asking for a little help now to so I don’t require a lot of help later.
10) Asking for help does not make you weak.
Finally, whether you have a disability or are perfectly healthy, you are bound to need help at some point in your life. Asking for help does not make you weak; it makes you strong enough to continue trying. Nobody should feel ashamed for receiving a little extra support.