Michelle Wyatt, 45, who had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME) 23 years ago, was forced to survive on £1 ready meals and without heating after her Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was stopped.
The York resident said the withdrawal of her disability benefit – which amounted to £75 a week and which she had been receiving since 1998 – had left her feeling suicidal.
The decision to stop her support came after a benefit assessor visited her home in December and concluded that she was no longer eligible for PIP – a disability benefit that replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2013 – because she was able to walk “four steps” from her wheelchair to her sofa.
The assessment report stated that Ms Wyatt was “able to rise unaided from the electric chair and transfer unaided to the sofa” and went on to conclude that it was “therefore reasonable to suggest she is able to rise and walk more than 200 metres unaided”.
Ms Wyatt, who on top of her disability had a battle with breast cancer last year, said her life would be “over” and she would lose her independence without her electric wheelchair, which she could not afford without the benefit payments.
“When there is zero money coming into your bank, the first thing you think is switch off your heating, you don’t use the hot water. Even for cooking food you’re thinking this is using gas and electric," Ms Wyatt told The Independent.
“I’ve been eating low-quality ready meals. I was put in a position where I’m going to experience intense physical de-conditioning through lack of physical movement.”
The 45-year-old continued: “Without my electric chair life would be over. With it, I go out every day into my local city. I meet friends, go to cafes, art galleries, all sorts. I can get on a bus in the chair and go to the seaside and sit by the sea in a deckchair. I can even get on a train and go to London,” she said.
“Without it, my world would become very tiny. I would never leave my flat unless someone were to push me in a manual wheelchair.”
Days after Ms Wyatt was informed that her PIP was stopping, she said she received notice that her Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and housing benefit had subsequently been suspended. They were reinstated 10 days later, but during that time she said she felt suicidal.
“I was hysterical all weekend. Believing I was going to lose my home. I got my friend to come round and got them to put all my stuff in boxes and take it to the charity shop,” she said.
“I was feeling suicidal, and I thought if I take my life my parents will be deeply upset and I didn’t want them to have to deal with all my stuff. I was clearing my flat so that if I died it wouldn’t be too strenuous for them.”
After being contacted by The Independent on Friday, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said they had reviewed Ms Wyatt's case and reinstated her PIP.
She said: “I still feel I cannot work with PIP and have an open straightforward conversation about how to move forward within the confines of my illness. I have received no communication that shows they have any interest in being anything other than a 'lie detector machine'.
"I wish to work with PIP to maximise my quality of life and independence, but I am not getting any positive communication in favour of this from the DWP. It feels like at the moment people with illnesses that are complicated cannot physically move without being punished."
Campaigners said the case highlighted that the current assessment process for PIP was “unfit for purpose”, with “hundreds of thousands” of disabled people having lost out since the system was introduced.
The latest government figures show nearly three in four (73 per cent) people who appeal refusals for PIP are successful, which campaigners warn does not include many rejected claimants who do not challenge the benefit decision because the process is too stressful.
It emerged in May last year that the number of complaints to the government about the PIP assessment process had surged by more than 6,000 per cent in three years, with 9,320 complaints received in the year to February 2019.
Varun Kanish, campaigns manager at Turn2us, said the PIP assessment model was “unfit for purpose” and that vulnerable people were subsequently being failed by government, with many suffering further physical and mental health complications as a result.
“[PIP assessments] are relentless, cruel and all too frequently inaccurate. We know this from the fact that two-thirds of decisions are overturned at tribunals. We urge the DWP to oversee a radical overhaul of benefit tests, with a focus on compassion and medical understanding,” he said.
A spokesperson from Disability Rights UK, meanwhile, said: “Hundreds of thousands of disabled people have lost out since the introduction of PIP; this at a time when austerity and other cuts have made day-to-day life more difficult for disabled people.
“We strongly urge people to get advice when they are claiming benefits, and use the independent appeals process if they are turned down for benefits they think they are entitled to.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that disabled people get all the support they are entitled to. We have reviewed this case and, with further information from Ms Wyatt, have reinstated her entitlement to PIP, with a light-touch 10-year review.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies