Julie Fernandez

What’s your experience of Access to Work?

Guest post from Julie Fernandez, star of ‘the Office’ ‘Eldorado’, producer and craft shop owner. Access to Work is a government scheme designed to give disabled people the support they need to find and keep a job, but after a reassessment Julie’s been told that the support she’s getting to run her craft business and to help with her media career is under review, and might be withdrawn.

Let us know your experience of Access to Work in the comments below.

We hear a lot from the government slating the minority of people who don’t want to work – who want to ‘sit around’ claiming benefits – alongside a lot of positive talk about how they want to help disabled people who are able to work, and certainly want to work, find a job.

In theory I’m somebody they should be using as a success story. I’m disabled, I work six days a week running my own craft business, and I employ 11 people. I also have a successful media career. I’m only able to do all of this because I get support under the Access to Work scheme – but I’m totally stressed out at the moment because it’s under review and I’ve been told that it might be taken away.

Awards from Access to Work have helped me for a few years now. I have brittle bones disease, I suffer with pain as a result, and I’m a wheelchair user. I use the money to employ a support worker at a cost of £18 an hour to assist me with things I’d find impossible to do otherwise – things like getting around, and carrying and lifting heavy objects.

Every three years you have an reassessment with Access to Work and after my last assessment a couple of months ago I got some really worrying news.

They told me it was unacceptable that my business has been running at a loss for the past two years, and that they don’t think they should give me the money to carry on working. They don’t take into account that with a new business you don’t expect to make much of an income initially.

They also don’t take into account that with my other work – my media career – you tend to have better times and leaner times – and media work doesn’t always pay as much as you might think.

The upshot is I’ve got until the end of August to write a full-time diary of every single job my support worker does for me, and provide three months of accounts, and then then they will decide if I am earning an ‘acceptable’ standard of living. Although they can’t tell me what this acceptable level would be, other than the minimum wage.

I hope I’ll be alright – but I’m really scared and nervous about it all and I’m angry.

I work six days a week – I employ 11 people – how much more do they want me to do? My business pays in the region of £800 per week in VAT. If they stop my Access to Work I’ll have to close my business, make my staff redundant, and claim a whole range of benefits instead.
If they reduce the award I get, I’ll have to make a choice between either the craft shop, or my 20 year media career.

I’m not the only person having problems with Access to Work at the moment.

An acquaintance of mine Jacqueline is the CEO of Universal Inclusion and Chair of Fluidity, the UK Forum for People with Hidden and Fluctuating Conditions.

She recently submitted information to the Select Committee Investigation into Access to Work, which detailed the difficulties Fluidity’s members have been experiencing with the service following its recent restructure. She is also facing challenges personally with the administration of her own award.

The submission highlights how prior to the restructure, people using the service had direct access to a personal advisor, but more recently they have to deal with advisors through call centres.

Fluidity’s members say that since this change they have had to speak to countless people about their awards, and many are asked to repeat their history each time because records haven’t been updated. It’s tough having to repeat personal information over and over again.
They think that call centre staff, while by on large doing their best, are being instructed to say specific things around response times, which Access to Work are then not sticking to. But some have described how they have found the manner of other call centre staff to be ‘upsetting and intimidating’.

Additionally, Fluidity’s members have reported long delays at the application stage, delays with payment for support, and delays when people request additional support due to a change in circumstances.
All of this is leading to – at best – frustration and delay – and at worst – disabled people becoming vulnerable and not supported.
Fluidity’s members are concerned that the focus on cutting costs demonstrated by the introduction of call centres means that there’s a move away from the more flexible and supportive approach that people are used to, to one that’s becoming increasingly cumbersome.

It’s really worrying stuff. Access to Work is a brilliant established scheme – and it makes good financial sense too. For every pound the treasury invests in the programme the treasury get £1.88 back.
It helps lots of disabled people like me find and stay in employment and I just hope that my experience, and the experiences of members of Fluidity UK aren’t warning signs that things are set to change.

What’s your experience of Access to Work? Have you had a negative experience like Julie, or do you have a positive experience to share? Let us know in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “What’s your experience of Access to Work?”

  1. I have help from access to work with transport to and from work and have found it invaluable. I’ve been using 12 months at present. I just wish I had known about it sooner!

  2. I use access to work to travel to and from work. I get a taxi from my house to the local train station as Im visually impaired and there are too many unsupported crossings en route. I don’t take advantage I only ask for what I need, I mean I could have claimed using public transport was difficult and got a taxi all the way but I do my share so I hope they do theirs. However I haven’t always found this to be the case. My employers find it a “chore” to deal with access to work, its only one form a month they have to sign, just to say I turned up on the days Im claiming transport for. As for AtoW they have changed the address for their Operational Support Unit from Glasgow to Wolverhampton and I wasn’t informed. I continued to send my transport claim forms to Glasgow and not receiving any money back. (I have to pay out in advance due to the reluctance of my employer). It took them nearly 2 weeks to finally admit they’d lost my request form and accompanying receipts (all 60 of them). I’ve got the money paid back to me now but it was a nightmare getting it. Calling the call centre, then waiting 7 working days, then missing their one attempt to call me because I was a t work, then having to wait 48 hours for a call back. Nighmare.

  3. I’ve just been offered a 6 month contract (just last Thursday 7th) so have approached Access to work for help and am waiting for them to get back to me, they said it would take 10 working days but my contract starts on the 22nd – so their time-scales could do with being better as I will be starting work before they have assessed me and with my support worker (luckily for me my husband is acting as my PA for the job with the companies approval, but they cannot fund him and pay me) coming in without payment to help me out and I will be working in my NHS wheelchair when I really need something that can recline to be able to work comfortably for sustained periods.

    I also don’t know what to do if they refuse me funding, the contract is a 6 month open ended one that is flexible enough to work around my health well but I am hoping it will lead onto something more permanent and that will not happen if lack of equipment and appropriate support prevents me from applying myself to the best of my ability

  4. I have been working since 2010 and i only got help about a year and a half. When I first contacted them in 2010 and requested some equipment like a desk – The person I spoke to informed me that ATW no longer fund these equipment, so I gave up. I tried again in 2012 and they agreed to pay for it – Basically the person I spoke to in 2010 given me wrong info. Anyway, when I contacted them in 2012 and requested a small wheelchair to be able to move freely around the office. They drove me crazy, They did everything and anything not to provide me with a wheelchair. They tried to trick me with those silly questions, they tried to provide me with transport because I only live about 2 miles from my work place and only work 2 days a week. They contacted local wheelchair services to try and replace my current chair. After about two months of waiting, I told them that if they do not want to provide me with a chair then I will be seeking some legal advice. I then received an email stating they agreed to provide me with a wheelchair. My advice to you all is you have to get some advice before approaching ATW, be very carfull.

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