As a disability consultant, my customers are any organisations that need help to develop their understanding of disability issues, for a whole range of reasons. Therefore I argue that this includes any organisation across the world.
With such a wide range of avenues in which to find work, it has been hard for me to stay focused on a specific market, and so my business strategy has been similar to a sea turtle: laying thousands of eggs, just hoping a few will hatch and one or two offspring will make it into the sea. I need to make contact with many, many organisations just to get one or two to offer me some work.
I have found that a good way to get through the door is to either make a constructive complaint about something that has directly happened to me, or to contact an organisation in the news that has shown it is having problems. I also believe that the way to get things changed is not to sit outside where the problem is and throw stones at the windows, but to actually get to the heart of the problem and, well, sort it!
So when I read that many user-led charities did not want to work with – or rather admit to working with – Atos Healthcare in assisting them to develop their assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP, the replacement for working-age disability living allowance), I saw an opportunity. If no-one else was going to work with Atos to ensure they did the best job they could, than it was clearly up to me.
And so, after making contact with the company, a few weeks ago I met with the Atos managers who are working on PIP. They have since shown interest in working with me, most importantly on a paid basis, on various aspects of their work, including their training and communication with claimants.
Those who know me know I take being independent very seriously, and this means a number of things. Firstly, I think for myself politically and my views do not align easily to a single political party. I agree with a lot of the government’s welfare reforms, although I know that it is how they are implemented that will be the most important thing. Being independent means that I have no unconditional loyalty to anyone, and I tell my customers what they need to hear – good or bad – not what they want to hear, fully understanding this means they may not always want to be my customers for long.
I know many people will find the idea of working for Atos controversial, but to understand my decision it is important to understand my mission statement and what exactly being a consultant entails. My mission statement has for many years been to improve the life experiences and opportunities for everyone, particularly people with significant impairments, since that is my own experience and expertise. While it may look mysterious at times, everything I do relates to my mission statement and my fundamental belief in human potential.
But changing the world for the better is not always heroic and exciting. As a consultant, it is often my job to read documents line by line and reflect on their implications for a wide range of people with differing impairments, backgrounds, understandings and beliefs. It is not about what I believe and want, but what I understand a wide range of people will think and desire. It is very often the small changes in policies or how letters are worded which can make the biggest difference to people, and turn worry into satisfaction.
This is why people like myself need to go through the small print with a fine comb. It is, however, not my job to make a list of unrealistic demands that only serve to hinder the job in hand.
I see disability as a complex landscape of opinion and identity that I assist others to navigate. My experience and expertise do not come from just being a disabled person but from the fact that I have worked in the field for more than 20 years, listening, observing and understanding a huge amount of opinions and facts on a whole range of subjects.
I also do not see myself as the definitive answer. Often, I am just another perspective that feeds into the process. The key term with anyone I work with, including Atos, is honesty. My ‘unique selling point’ is that I am that boy who told the emperor he was wearing no clothes, and I do not compromise on this. There have been many times that I have walked away from work because I felt I could not be honest, and I would do the same if I felt that with Atos. Another key term is that I should be paid for my work, and this is one not all customers understand.
Working with Atos is controversial because of the way so many sick and disabled people think about the organisation, portraying them as ‘toxic’. I have yet to establish for myself the facts from the feelings when it comes to the many concerns people have, but because of the many emotions involved it will be challenging to find out what the real problems are.
Atos is an organisation I can work with and should work with, but there are some organisations I would find it very difficult to work with, like the BNP. But I would even consider working for them, depending on what exactly they wanted and whether it was the right price. If it was a ridiculous amount of money I would then have the resources to help others. It is all about helping to make things better for disabled people, whatever the supposed motives of the organisation, rather than being a part of any tick-box exercise.
As the PIP assessment process grows and develops, I know Atos will make plenty of mistakes and the process will never be perfect, but at least I know I am doing my bit to make it as good as it can be.
Simon Stevens is a disability consultant and activist