Empathy on Disability

So how exactly would the Empathy Party’s philosophy apply to disability? To recap, the first tenet of the Party’s philosophy is that no-one should be left in an impossible situation, one in which there are no viable options available to them, particularly Catch 22, rock-and-a-hard-place situations. (From now on, this will be known as the ’empathy principle’). This is perhaps the area where the Party’s response would be the most obvious. The disabled are, after all, especially vulnerable to being placed in impossible situations. This is true not only of those who cannot work but also those whose work options are limited by their disability or reliant on the support of their employer. In this post, however, I want to focus on the issue of the welfare support of those who cannot work.

Many pixels have been spilt on the myriad ways in which disabled people who claim benefits are mistreated by the current Government through ATOS, the company contracted to perform work capability assessments (WCAs). Therefore, I will restrict myself here to discussing a few examples which I think illustrate particularly clearly how the present system seems to go out of its way to create impossible situations for disabled people. The worst example is the fact that attendance at the mandatory WCAs can be and is used as evidence that a person does not meet the criteria necessary to retain their benefit. The ability to travel to the assessment centre, which may be located in a pedestrianised area, and to sit in the waiting room for a period of time, is taken as proof that people claiming to have mobility issues or mental problems such as agoraphobia are fit for work. This means a Catch 22 situation is created whereby if a person does not attend their WCA their benefit is stopped, and if they do attend they are deemed ‘fit for work’ and still have their benefit stopped. (In the interest of fairness I should point out that ATOS can and sometimes does perform home assessments, but they are not required to and often refuse, and in any case these do not necessarily amount to a ‘fair trial’ anyway). This is clearly contrary to the Empathy Party’s philosophy.

The Empathy Party would view it as its duty to ensure that no disabled people were left in an impossible situation. Of course, the Party views this as its duty towards all people. But since, as mentioned above, the disabled are more likely to be left in an impossible situation, since they are more likely to have a greater dependence on others than most, they would be given some priority on this front. We must remember that engagement with social life in its many forms is an essential part of a meaningful life which most of us take for granted, but which may provide difficulties to those with mobility issues which may be very costly to overcome. For this reason, schemes such as Motability, a charity which provides a car to some disabled people in exchange for their mobility benefit, must be pushed. Funds must also be made available for the adaptation of vehicles where necessary. Such schemes are of course very costly, however the empathy principle makes them indispensable (as if they weren’t already). The ability not only to survive but to engage with society is something which we should consider it ‘impossible’ to sacrifice, a basic part of a fulfilling life, In order to avoid impossible situations, therefore, we must ensure as much mobility as possible is available to the disabled.

In order for benefits to reach those who need them, but to maintain a situation in which the system is difficult to cheat, doctors, hopefully specialising in the field relevant to the patient, would make the decision on whether their patients were, from a medical perspective, in need of benefit support. This sounds like a huge undertaking for already over-worked doctors. However, presumably most if not all disabled people are in contact about their condition with a doctor anyway, I see no reason why the process could not be administered in a similar way to prescriptions. Alternatively, if the practical burden will be too great on the existing NHS system, a separate division of doctors might be created to deal with the disabled, who would have specific training in the different difficulties confronting the disabled in their lives and how these are best managed in order to give the patient as full a life as possible, especially regarding their ability to engage with society. Having doctors administer benefits like this is obviously not without problems (I’m sure doctors don’t relish the idea of dealing with patient’s angry at having been denied their benefit, for one), but I see no other way to accurately determine who needs how much financial support. Those without appropriate and relevant medical training are in no position to apply empathy accurately to the disabled, and so we cannot expect and empathetic system without medical professionals being in charge of the decisions. Furthermore, the role of a doctor is already one of care, with their interests on making the life of their patient livable, and so we can hope that their priorities are already well aligned with the empathy principle whilst still having experience of administering available resources in a sustainable way.

On the issue of welfare, a lot of concern is focussed on ‘benefit cheats.’ However, given the Party’s priorities, preventing such abuses would not be of a high priority. Given that a fraudster takes valuable money from those who need it, it would not be disregarded. But the Empathy Party’s philosophy, in order to avoid placing anyone in an impossible situation, would prefer a situation in which ten fraudsters were allowed to cheat the system than one in which one genuinely disabled person was unfairly stripped of their benefits. Cheats are a burden on the system, but are unlikely to place anyone in an impossible situation, unless cheating becomes so endemic that it actually cripples the system, which I think is unlikely. On the other hand, the overzealous weeding out of fraudsters by making the application system difficult to navigate and pass does directly place people in impossible situations, since their is a high likelihood of those who legitimately require benefits being denied them.

Furthermore, given the Empathy Party’s stance on crime, which I will cover in a few posts’ time, actual cheats would not necessarily be treated purely as criminals, and their own circumstances would be examined to see why they felt the need to cheat a system designed to support vulnerable people. It may be that an impossible situation of their own is forcing them into committing fraud.

I choose disability as the first test-case for the Empathy Principle as it is an area in which the application of the principle is the most obvious. I’m hopeful that on other issues, interpretation of how the principle should be applied will be a little more ambiguous, leaving a little more room for discussion, but I hope on this issue the application of the principle has at least helped to illustrate the absurdity and inhumanity of the current system, and to provide a wider perspective on how we should be treating the most vulnerable in society.

I appreciate that my suggestions are very idealistic, and that I haven’t addressed the issue of economic practicality at all.  I’m no economist, so all I have to say on this is that the Government, even in times of economic crisis, has an huge amount of money to work with, and the Empathy Party would consider the prevention of acute impossible situations such as face many disabled people one of its highest priorities within that budget. There is an incredible amount of wealth within this country, both in public and private hands. We must find a way to direct some of that money into the prevention of impossible situations right under our noses.

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