At 18, after six months in a psychiatric unit, I first claimed disability benefits.
A social worker helped me apply for supported housing, as well as for the benefits needed to cover my rent and cost of living.
Because I was so young, I didn’t know much about the stigma that claimants faced. I knew about ‘the dole’ and state pensions, but the vitriol I faced about claiming disability benefit was shocking.
Someone even reported me to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for ‘benefit fraud’, enraged that I didn’t have to work.
People would call me a ‘sponger’ or ‘scrounger’ when I was open about receiving benefits. I became ashamed of telling anyone, even though I knew I was entitled to them.
It got to the stage that I cancelled them. I was about to go to university and I was worried people would see me as a fraud applying to study full-time while claiming.
I felt like asking all those who wrongly labelled me whether they would willingly live with severe mental health problems in exchange for ‘free money.’
Because that’s what I had to do.
After graduating I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, which forced me back onto benefits. It’s five years on and I’m now too ill to work due to debilitating pain and fatigue.
I knew I needed the benefits, but having to re-apply was a bitter pill swallow. I so wanted to be rid of the label that tormented me.
People assume, especially when your illnesses are invisible, that you are scamming the system. When I read articles reporting on benefit fraud, the comments on them are full of people saying that their neighbour ‘gets a free car and there’s nothing wrong with him.‘
The joke is that the motability scheme doesn’t give out ‘free cars’, but leases them in exchange for a large portion of a claimant’s Personal Independence Payment (PIP) allowance.
The impression that disability benefit fraud is rife not only makes it very difficult for people to be open about claiming benefits, it’s incorrect: disability benefit fraud makes up only 1.4 per cent of overpaid benefits.
Younger people who have to claim disability benefits are particularly unfairly judged. Older people say, ‘I’m not a scrounger, I’ve paid in’ to justify claiming them.
Just because we haven’t all had the chance to ‘pay in’ to the tax system before needing to claim benefits doesn’t make us scroungers or cheats.
It also implies that people who are disabled from birth aren’t as deserving of disability benefits as those who claim later in life.This just isn’t fair.
It took me a while, but I’m not ashamed of claiming benefits any more.
In the last four years benefits have kept my heating on in cold weather, and helped me to pay for necessary items such as joint supports and mobility aids so I can be in less pain and participate more in society.
I wish that the people who label me as a scrounger could see things from my perspective; that they could know the anguish that comes from not being able to work.
I wish they would educate themselves about what it is like to be disabled. On average, disabled people face extra costs of £583 a month.
We need to change the narrative around benefits, because even I, as a disabled person, have bought into the lies.
It’s got to the point where I now feel guilty when I buy myself something nice. Benefit claimants are expected live a basic, austere existence, so where do I get off treating myself to the occasional luxury?
There should be no stigma attached to being a benefits claimant, just as there never used to be such attitudes about living in a council house.
I still feel a sting when I see the word ‘scrounger’ used for someone who claims benefits, not just because I have been called it, but because it devalues the human being behind the label.
Even if we are unable to work, we still have a lot to offer to society and deserve your respect.
Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity — positively or negatively — and what the label means to them.
If you would like to get involved please email [email protected]
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