By Amy Hall
A cockroach, a tapeworm, herpes, a blood-sucking leech – just some of the terms used to describe Atos Healthcare by people who have come into contact with the company.
Assessments for disability and health related state benefits, conducted by Atos, have been hugely controversial. The company is paid by the British government’s Department for Work and Pensions to help decide who can work and who can’t, who keeps receiving money and who doesn’t. Not only are their results often found to be inaccurate, but the process can be lengthy and debilitating.
In September 2011, the Atos Stories collective started advertising online for people’s experiences of Work Capability Assessments with the aim of making them into plays. Judith Cole [a pseudonym] decided to set up the project after reading horror stories in the press. ‘I think I first saw the story that probably went around on Twitter about a poor guy who’d died of a heart attack after an Atos assessment,’ she says.
Adam Lotun, 49, is one of the people who got in touch with his experience. He says he has had two assessments by Atos, one where he was considered able to work, and one where he wasn’t.
However, he feels neither was in-depth enough to determine the true impact of his multiple health issues which include mental health problems, learning disabilities, needing a wheelchair for mobility, and a machine to help him breathe at night. ‘If I was a horse they would put me down,’ he says.
By May 2012 the small collective had three play scripts ready: Atos Stories, a drama with music,The Atos Monologues and Atos Street Theatre, all available via their website for people to put on in their communities.
Campaigners can use the plays to raise awareness about Atos and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Interest has been building, including from activists angry at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics.
Kerry-Anne Mendoza.is a 30-year-old campaigner from Our Olympics. ‘There’s still a shocking amount of public ignorance about the stuff that’s happened with Atos and what the actual impacts are on the disabled community,’ she says.
Act Up, a community theatre company based in Newham, London is putting on a performance of Atos Stories. The group is made up of both people with disabilities and people without. ‘We are now trying to adapt it and make it accessible for our group,’ says Yvonne Brouwers their chair.
In September, disability charity Scope published the results of a survey that revealed 73 per cent of disabled people felt others just presumed they did not work, this was up from 50 per cent in May 2011.
Campaigners and disability charities feel that government cuts and rhetoric around the concept of ‘benefit scroungers’ is making an already difficult situation worse, while reducing the amount of money people have to lead independent lives.
‘That disabled person who lives next door to you, who you think doesn’t look very disabled, could actually be spending three days out of every five in bed because they’re so ill,’ says Judith.
Adam says he has experienced this discrimination first-hand: ‘I’ve been pushed into oncoming traffic when I’ve been waiting at traffic lights, I’ve had my walking stick kicked away from me, I’ve been kicked out of my wheelchair…and it’s not just me, it’s happening to many people across the country.’
It is hoped communicating the experiences of people through drama will make a useful change from more traditional protest methods. ‘I think if you can move people, make them angry, make them laugh at the absurdity of it and then make them realize what that absurdity means for people, then you can really shake people up,’ says Judith.
‘People in this country like to think that the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and disabled get a good deal and when they discover that they don’t they’re really shocked…Somebody might be put off by a protest but they think, “That looks like an interesting play, I’ll go to that.”’
Ultimately, Atos Stories also aims to be a source of empowerment for performers and audiences. ‘I’m hoping that some of the people who choose to put on the plays will have had a personal experience,’ says Judith.
‘It gives them the chance to say, actually this is terrible, and be part of a collective response to it and take the fight back.’
More information about the plays is available at the Atos Stories website.