Injury to benefits

Priya greets me with a smile and asks whether I would like tea.
“Thanks. White, no sugar,” I reply. Books are piled on the bed in
her student room, so I take the only chair.

Priya’s kind offer has posed her a set of challenges of which I am
unaware. How do you make tea? Is it made with boiling water? Will
she remember to add milk? She returns after 20 minutes with a
perfect cup of tea. She is sorry I had to wait so long, but at
least she is not cooking me a meal, she says. That can take

She has no mental illness and no visible physical disability. But
the encephalitis she contracted at 15 made her blind for six months
and has left her struggling with the simplest tasks and prone to
seizures that can strike with a few seconds’ notice.

Her defiance of her condition, and the devotion of her family,
earned her a place at the London School of Economics (LSE). She
wants to find work championing the cause of fellow sufferers.

Yet the doctor who assessed her for disability living allowance
(DLA) insisted she could find no evidence to support her claim, and
it was rejected. It had taken the family months to learn about DLA
because none of the social workers had mentioned it during her time
in hospital. They learned eventually of their benefit entitlement
through support groups they contacted.

The family was determined to appeal against the decision – both
Priya’s mother and sister had given up work to nurse her. Many
months later, after more distress, more form-filling and more
assessments, the original decision was reversed.

Priya’s experience is far from unique.

Headway, the brain injury association, and the Association for
Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (Asbah), which campaigns for
sufferers of spina bifida and hydrocephalus, has carried out
research into people with brain injury who were claiming
DLA.1 It found that one in four initial claims were
rejected. But three-quarters of those rejected appealed and 71 per
cent were successful. The two charities were so disturbed by the
findings that they held a meeting with the Department for Work and
Pensions (DWP) about the problems.

DLA is an important benefit for people with brain injury but the
survey found a lack of awareness among sufferers and professionals.
Respondents said they had difficulty with claiming. “The forms are
a nightmare” and “I couldn’t fill it out on my ownÉit was very
confusing” were some of the comments. Even professionals asked to
fill out the forms were often at a loss as to how to complete the
application. Headway estimates that 80 per cent of its members have
problems with the disability assessment process.

Typical disabilities for people with brain injuries include
short-term memory loss, comprehension difficulties and an inability
to solve problems and organise simple daily tasks. These are not
mental illnesses, but the current DLAapplication process recognises
only mental illness and overt physical disabilities. Assessing
doctors often fail to spot the “hidden” disabilities faced by brain
injury survivors, whose lives are nevertheless blighted by their

Headway and Asbah are trying to raise awareness of the problems:
they want professionals to encourage brain injury victims to apply
for disability allowance, and they want the government to provide
those professionals with the necessary information.

The survey also recommended that DLA claiming processes should be
simplified and that people with brain injury need to be made more
aware of their eligibility for DLA.

The two charities are also calling for principal carers to be
present at the DLA assessment, and for the forms to include
sections for those with cognitive difficulties.

Moira Henderson, principal medical officer at the DWP, has been
keen to meet the charities and evaluate the survey. The DWP has
recently piloted a new DLA claim pack and is trying to improve the
brain injury training given to assessment doctors. Henderson asked
to hear of any specific examples of examining doctors who lacked
understanding of “hidden” disabilities.

Priya has just finished her second year at the LSE but, unlike her
fellow students, has three more years to go. The college has
awarded her a two-year extension. The tutors realise how bright she
is, but also appreciate her struggle with everyday tasks.

It is an attitude she hopes will be reflected in future DLA

Sarah Hurn is a volunteer for Headway.


1 Claiming DLA: A Battlefield
or a Minefield? is available from Headway 0115 924 0800 or Asbah
01733 555988

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