Dave Sewell on the horrific letters that expose how Paralympics sponsor Atos treats disabled people
“I was forced to crawl across the floor in tears of pain and humiliation.”
Those are the words of one disabled person who was assessed by Paralympic sponsor Atos Healthcare.
“I had to absolutely struggle to get up with one arm on a chair. I could not put pressure on my knees and ankles and my right arm was numb with trapped nerves. The doctor just looked at me and said ‘Oh, can’t you get up? I should have helped you’.”
This nightmare is revealed in just one of the personal letters set to be delivered to Atos by Disabled People Against Cuts (Dpac) as part of their protests this week.
Atos is a private firm that the government pays to decide whether disabled people are “fit for work”. If they are, they lose their benefits.
In a procedure that has been slammed by the doctors’ BMA association, Atos scores disabled people, giving them “points” for each task they can’t carry out.
“I scored nil points for ‘can get up off the floor unaided’,” the testimony continues. “My assessment was a complete work of fiction and I won an appeal 14 months later.”
Others tell similar stories. “My impression was that it didn’t matter what I said, the decision had already been made,” writes Kevin from Northampton. “I felt humiliated, a scrounger, a cheat.
“Several weeks later the report arrived. I started to read it and thought that I had got the wrong person’s. They made it seem like I was Superman—but I can’t get my sock and shoe on.
“I could not believe what I read, but worse was to come. I was then told that my benefits had already been stopped a week before I got the letter. I broke down and cried. I sobbed like a baby. Why was I being treated like this? How was I going to pay the bills?”
For many disabled people, the name Atos has become forever associated with death. “Rest in peace my Davy,” one widow writes to Atos. “He was very, very ill. He could not work because of his condition. You told him that he was ‘fit for work’ and were signing him off sickness.
“He died. You, Atos, called him to ask where he was as he had an appointment with you. I told you that he died the day before and you slammed the phone down on me.”
The writer herself was chronically ill even before her bereavement, and accuses Atos of “hounding” her disabled son. “Will he become another victim of your number crunching? And what about me? All you want is to move us off sickness, tell us we are ‘fit for work’ and get rid of us.”
Other letter writers say they have considered suicide. “Please don’t worry about me complaining too much,” writes one person with multiple sclerosis (MS). “I anticipate becoming just another boring statistic in the mounting death toll.”
Like many, this anonymous writer lives in fear of Atos ignoring the implications of their condition. “I wake frequently with nightmares that I am ill, homeless, and penniless,” they write, “due to having all my benefits stopped and nobody caring or believing a word I say.”
The letters are to be delivered in a coffin, while activists read out the names of some of the more than 1,000 people believed to have died after Atos assessed them as being capable of “work-related activity”.
Even the layout of Atos’ assessment centres shows the firm’s contempt for disabled people, an accessibility expert has told Socialist Worker.
Adam Lotun, an advisor on disability adjustments, visited the Atos centre in Wimbledon, south west London. He says the problems start before you even get there as there is no disabled parking.
The tube and train stations are “at the other end of Wimbledon”. Atos’ front door opens outwards, with an electronic lock but no power opening assistance.
Adam says, “By the time I am trying to pull the doors open towards me and move my wheelchair out of the way, the electronic lock has locked shut again. It’s almost impossible.”
Inside there is a sign in Braille above the reception desk—almost ten feet up. Adam adds, “Unless someone is seven feet tall and able to stretch their arms up fully, they would not be able to read it.”
The examination rooms have a litany of problems. Many doors and corridors are too narrow for wheelchairs, Adam explains. There are also no hearing aid loop systems, and staff sit behind computers, making lip-reading impossible.
After all this you might want to complain. But notices telling people how to make complaints are not accessible to sight impaired people or those with learning difficulties—they are not easy-read versions.
85 pages of disabled people’s Atos horror stories
£80m profits for Atos in the first half of this year alone
£9m spent by Channel 4 to buy the British broadcasting rights for the 2012 Paralympics
4 billion people are expected to tune in worldwide
The Coffin delivery is part of a week of action, with protests every day this week. On Tuesday there were protests outside Atos offices across Britain.
“It went really well,” said John McArdle from the Black Triangle Campaign in Edinburgh. “There were about 40 people and we surrounded the building.”
And on Friday Dpac and UK Uncut are preparing for mass direct action at Atos headquarters. Previous actions have blocked Oxford Circus and Trafalgar Square.
“This will be the closing Atos ceremony,” said Andy Greene from Disabled People Against Cuts. “We will close Atos down. We need everybody there.”
Direct action at Atos headquarters. Friday 31 August, 12.45pm, Triton Square, Regent’s Place, London NW1 3HG