A disabled man has won compensation from the government’s “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare because of the weeks of distress, pain and fatigue he suffered after being forced to attend an inaccessible assessment centre.
David Johnson is just one of a number of disabled people who have complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) about the failure of Atos to make reasonable adjustments for their assessments.
EHRC, which supported Johnson’s case, is considering what further action to take against Atos, but has been unable so far to say how many complaints it has received.
Johnson, from Pudsey, near Bradford, is now encouraging other disabled people to take action against Atos under the Equality Act.
He wants the company and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to improve the accessibility of the work capability assessment (WCA), the test which determines eligibility for the new out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
The company tried to argue that it was not bound by the Equality Act when delivering WCAs, and so did not need to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.
But it eventually agreed to pay Johnson £2,000, plus costs, in an out-of-court settlement – although not admitting liability – two months after the EHRC agreed to represent him. Johnson was also supported by Sheffield Law Centre.
He had wanted a personal apology, and for the company to make a public apology to others who had faced similar treatment, as well as making a “prominent public commitment” to improve its “policy and practice”, but Atos refused.
Johnson, who has ME and is the former director of an electronic engineering firm, had made it clear in his ESA50 questionnaire – which every claimant has to fill in – that he would need to be able to travel “door-to-door” in a car or taxi to avoid the assessment having a “significant impact” on his health, because of “severe post exertional fatigue and pain”.
But the information about his access needs was never passed to the Atos department that arranges interviews, and so he was told to attend the assessment centre in Bradford on 9 August 2011.
Atos later admitted that ESA50 forms – which have a section asking claimants for their access needs – are “not viewed in detail” by the staff who book appointments.
The Bradford assessment centre is in a pedestrian precinct, which meant Johnson was forced to walk 60 metres to the front door, and another 60 metres back to the nearest pick-up point afterwards – and even then only because his father disregarded parking and loading restrictions to drop him off.
Atos do not give out the telephone numbers of individual assessment centres, so he feared that if he rang the company’s central call centre to ask for assistance, he might be late for his appointment.
He said he knew that “being late is usually treated [by Atos] as a failure to attend” and leads to ESA being withdrawn.
Although he managed to attend his assessment and make it home, he was left “struggling with the daily business of surviving” for at least a month afterwards, and experienced “a lot of pain, and very high fatigue levels”.
A medical report later concluded that there was “no doubt” that the impact of the events of 9 August 2011 was “significant” and that “certainly several steps could have been taken to avoid the exacerbation of symptoms”.
He was then told that he had been awarded zero points by the Atos assessor and so had been found “fit for work”.
He successfully appealed and – following what he says was a five-minute hearing by a tribunal panel last May – was placed into the support group, for those disabled people with the highest barriers to work.
Last month, just weeks after Atos agreed to pay him compensation, Johnson was sent a letter telling him that he would be assessed yet again, for the third time in five years.
In a letter to his Conservative MP, Stuart Andrew, he wrote: “How am I supposed to stand any chance of keeping my health stable, let alone managing to improve it, if the DWP are constantly harassing me (and thousands of others like me) with their revolving door approach to reassessment?
“Receiving the ESA50 without warning this morning was a sickening blow, leaving me oscillating between utter despair and extreme anger.”
Andrew has now written to DWP to “urge my colleagues there to look into your case as a matter of some urgency”.
Johnson told Disability News Service that the treatment he had received from Atos had been “unbelievably poor”.
He added: “They clearly haven’t made any effort to follow best practice guidelines on access and they don’t seem to have any real awareness of mobility issues within the organisation.
“This is an organisation that is assessing sick and disabled people. You would have thought that they should be operating with gold standard, and they are clearly clueless.”
An EHRC spokesman said: “The commission has received complaints about Atos failing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.
“Mr Johnson issued a claim against Atos on this basis, which we supported. The case settled with a payment to him of £2,000 before the case was heard.
“We are currently considering what further action, if any, we might take so can’t go into any further details at this time.”
An Atos spokeswoman said she could not comment on individual cases, but added: “We have a thorough complaints process for anyone who feels that our service does not meet their needs.
“We look at each case on an individual basis, will thoroughly investigate and any lessons learnt are applied to our business.”