Flash Says…

Archive for October 2011

[This article is cross posted to Where's the Benefit, where I am one of the team.]

The BBC carrys a worrying story today.

“Warning over legal aid cuts for disabled people” the article leads. “Ministers are being urged not to restrict legal aid for disabled people wanting to challenge benefit decisions”.

News comes of yet another way that government is looking to save money – this time on a £2bn legal aid bill which it claims is “unaffordable” – money needed by disabled people to get legal assistance when benefit claims go against them.

This action is being questioned by a group of 23 charities including Scope, Mind, Mencap, RNIB and Leonard Cheshire.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that the review of legal aid meant that it would be “targeted at the most serious cases”.

I would argue that ANY situation where you could potentially lose your benefits is a “most serious case”. Indeed, given the comments on Where’s the Benefit and my own blog (Flash Says) it can at times be life and death.

Comments on my blog include Roger, who wrote “Since this all began [cuts to benefits for disabled people] I have began to feel totally paranoid and at times have given thought to killing myself mainly due to the daily pain I endure but also due to the uncaring way this government is treating us.”

James Gilbert simply said: “If my benefits are cut I don’t know what I would do”

You only have to read one article – Suicide is part of the disability debate – to know how important it is for disabled people to receive benefits. As well as keeping them alive (funding a roof over their heads, food, heat and light) it also validates that person. “Yes, we know you are disabled. We believe you.”

The nature of disability can be such that it makes it hard to complete benefit application forms. People can have memory problems or find it hard to concentrate. They may have physical problems with writing or typing, or they may not be able to construct clear sentences. I know that when I am struggling with pain I find it harder to think, and this affects my ability to write coherently – it is clear to see when I review letters I’ve written, I can easily tell which were done on a “good pain day” and which on a “bad pain day”. But some people don’t get good days, only bad ones – and yet through this they are expected to complete long booklets explaining why they are entitled to benefits.

Disabled people should of course be supported to appeal when a benefit decision goes against them. It’s already been proven that less than 0.5% of Disability Living Allowance applications are fraudulent, for example – these are the government’s own figures. Therefore, when claimants find a decision goes against them, and come forward asking for help to appeal, they are almost certainly going to be genuine, people who really do need help. Likewise with Employment and Support Allowance.

Commenters on Where’s the Benefit and Flash Says have said that the whole application process (including the fear of perhaps having to appeal) is so stressful that they have decided not to apply and to try to live in poverty without the benefit they are entitled to. Surely people should be given legal assistance to appeal, and feel supported by the government, rather than being forced to live in poverty because they feel beaten by the system?

It is critical that legal aid is available for those who need to challenge benefit decisions. A third of disabled people aged 25 to retirement live in a low-income household – and twice as many disabled people live in poverty compared to those who are able bodied. Without legal support when benefit decisions go against them, this shocking figure is surely set to grow.

Paul Reekie and Christelle Pardo have already killed themselves when their benefits were cut. How many will follow?

Providing this legal aid really could be a matter of life or death.

Are you wondering why my blog posts are no longer every week? It’s still my intention, but life has taken over. Let me give you an insight into living with, and managing, pain. It’s a daily juggling act.

I take two different painkillers. One, dihydrocodeine (DHC), is what I’ve taken for years. It doesn’t really have any side effects for me, but on the other hand it does very little for me nowadays. It maybe shaves a little of the edge off the pain but not enough that I can sleep, for example. It also takes about an hour to work. The other, oxycodone (oxy), works nicely on the pain. It never removes the pain completely but it reduces it to a background level so I can function and so I can sleep. It also begins to work quite soon after taking it. The trouble with oxy is that I experience two side effects. The first is constipation, which I manage with another medicine. Usually this works ok but sometimes not enough (so I don’t go to the loo for 3 days, and feel ill) and sometimes too much (so I go to the loo 20 times a day and spend that day in bed recovering). I spend about one day a week in bed because of digestive troubles one way or another, or just exhaustion.

The side effect I really hate, however, is lack of appetite. For a gourmand like me, that’s a terrible thing. I’ve gone from loving my food and eating out being a real treat, to having to force myself to eat when every mouthful is horrid.

A few years ago, I saw a programme about anorexic girls who were forced to eat – they did everything to avoid it, and to try and make their plate look clean – hiding food under the table or even in their hair. At the time that was incomprehensible to me but now, faced with even a teaplate of food, it’s how I feel. Each mouthful feels impossible and I just want the food to disappear, but I know I have to carry on until another bite would actually make me throw up. On a good day I can enjoy the flavour of some of it, but my relationship with food has utterly changed. I don’t even fancy alcohol very much and often make one drink last all evening.

So, that’s oxy for you. Sometimes it makes me feel nauseous as well but I can manage that, it’s unpleasant but bearable and compared to the other two side effects is insignificant.

Now imagine you are in bed at night. You wake up. Damn, the curtains are still dark. You reach for the clock – it’s 3.30am. Although you were in bed early, you know you were still awake with pain at 1.30am so the most you have had is 2 hours sleep. Back at midnight you’d taken the DHC but it doesn’t seem to have done much. Now everything really hurts; your knees have a burning pain. Your hips have a more stinging ache, and your ribs ache on the side where you’ve been lying.

You try turning over – grabbing hold of the headboard to haul yourself up, so you’ll put as little weight as possible on your hips and pelvis. Wincing as you turn, you rotate, and this relieves the ache in your ribs for a few minutes. You gently tuck some duvet between your two burning knees.

Turning over hasn’t helped. Light glints on the blister pack of oxy by the bed. You know it will block you up and also make you struggle to eat. But you’ve only had 2 hours of sleep and are desperate for more. What choice do you have?

In the current economic climate, you might think that companies should take every customer they can get. But some are just not worth the hassle… Here are the lessons I’ve learned where the relationship just didn’t work out.

Firstly, follow your gut instinct. This week I was called by someone who wanted a new website. He asked if I used Dreamweaver. I explained that no, I didn’t, because I prefer to create website code from scratch. “You don’t use Dreamweaver? That’s ridiculous!” I responded “Well, I have the skills to create a website directly. I don’t use software to do it for me…” “Ridiculous!” he insisted. “You’ll be telling me you don’t use Fireworks next!” He had clearly learned one way to create websites, and assumed it was the only way. I could tell that the conversation was going nowhere, and didn’t even bother to take his details, because he was so stuck in his ways. I just knew that we wouldn’t see eye to eye. Apart from anything else, his comments of “Ridiculous” were mildly offensive – I felt like saying “if you know better, go and do the website yourself!”

In another case, alarm bells started ringing from the off, but I still did the deal. Guy (not his real name) contacted me needing a website for his Private Investigator business. He would check out internet brides, to make sure they didn’t have family elsewhere before marrying someone from the west.

My suspicions were raised when Guy wanted to make a 2 hour round trip to pay me the deposit in cash rather than cheque. However, some customers like to meet me, so I agreed. We discussed his website, and I went away and did the work. We met again so I could receive the balance owed, and this is where it turned weird. Guy confided that he was a wanted man in an Asian country, and needed money from his PI business so he could raise a bribe to stop officials throwing him in jail if he returned. At this point I smiled politely, while thinking “how can I get out of this?”

Several months later Guy asked me to update his website, which I did, but then he vanished without paying. At renewal time his website simply expired. Perhaps he was in prison?

Guy taught me another lesson – don’t be afraid to walk away. That’s exactly what I did when I met another customer, who I’ll call Alex. I’d explained to Alex that I specialised in website accessibility, and would provide him with an elegant but straightforward website with text and static images. This was agreed. We met so that I could show him the demo of his website. The conversation went like this:
Me: [finishing demo] … And that’s your website.
Alex: Where are the dancing animals?
Me: What dancing animals?
Alex: In my head, the website has animals dancing across the screen.

The first three words are the issue here – “in my head”! Having explicitly been told that I didn’t do animation, even making a joke out of the fact that my name is Flash but I don’t create Flash movies, Alex still envisaged that I’d provide some – but never told me about it! We agreed to part ways and he settled up. Later, I saw the next incarnation of Alex’s website – it had pages whizzing in from all sides and tinny music playing – very much “My First Website” – reminiscent of something from the late 1990s. I’m glad we parted company, because I would never have allowed myself to produce anything like that!

What should you do about awkward customers? I think the key here is “be proud of your price” – if they are going to be hugely fussy and need lots of changes to the website, or command a lot of your attention then they will have to pay for the service you provide.

It’s not always like that; I have several long standing customers and I appreciate their loyalty – I hope they enjoy the level of service I give them in return. But if your instinct tells you something’s not right, listen and don’t be afraid to walk away – it could save you a lot of trouble in the long run.


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