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theweeksubNew fears have been raised about how disabled people will be expected to apply for a new disability benefit, after it emerged that the government is not offering a way to claim for it online.

Earlier this month, Disability News Service reported that the government service that allows disabled people to complete online claims for disability living allowance (DLA) only works with outdated web browsers and computer operating systems.

The outdated IT system means that DLA applicants have to fill in the 56-page application form by hand or by phone.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) stressed then that both the new universal credit and personal independence payment (PIP) – which is gradually replacing working-age DLA – would use new IT systems.

But disabled activists have now discovered that it will not be possible to fill in a PIP claim online after all, with the system apparently even less accessible than the old DLA version.

The initial stage of the process has to be carried out through a lengthy phone call, before a paper form is sent in the post for the claimant to fill out.

This form – on which PIP claimants have to give full details of their personal circumstances –  must be filled out on paper, even though research carried out for DWP on the design of the claim process says people with sensory impairments asked for it to be available in British Sign Language, audio description and electronic versions.

But DWP has decided that the forms will only be available in print or large print, with associated information available in print, Braille and large print and on audio CD.

This is likely to create serious problems for disabled people who need to apply for PIP but cannot use a pen, and want to fill in the form themselves for privacy reasons.

Even if claimants are allowed to fill in their form on the phone, with the completed version sent to them to sign – as can be done with employment and support allowance – many claimants are likely to feel deeply uncomfortable passing personal details to a stranger.

Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, which led to the We Are Spartacus online movement, said she believed that very few disabled people were aware that they would not be allowed to fill in their claim forms online.

She said: “The testing process specifically picked up the issue but they have chosen not to implement the solution.

“For people like me who either cannot write or can only write a little at a time this means relying on someone else.

“I should not have to disclose intimate and embarrassing details about my disability to a stranger, simply because the DWP will not provide an accessible format.

“I dread the advent of PIP, not because I am afraid I won’t qualify (I will), but because I will find the application process very difficult and exhausting.”

She added: “This is a complete step backwards compared to DLA and as far as I am concerned shows a total disregard for disabled people’s dignity, independence and privacy.

“If the application process isn’t changed I think some people will end up without the support they need.”

A DWP spokeswoman said the PIP process would include a face-to-face assessment and regular reviews, which “was something missing under the current system”, while the application process had been designed “with individuals’ needs in mind”.

She said: “People claiming the new benefit will have the opportunity to discuss how their impairment affects their ability to live an everyday life, instead of trying to self-assess through an over-complicated claim form alone.”

She added: “In addition to offering a variety of claim formats, we are working with disability groups and claimants as PIP is rolled out to see which parts of the process should be made online, and this is likely to be put in place after the independent review in 2014.”

But Campbell said the “opportunity to discuss” was in fact “a stressful interview in addition to a fairly complex self-assessment form”, which was “hardly an improvement”. And she pointed out that many DLA claimants already undergo face-to-face assessments.

She also said that there was no commitment in the DWP response to “ensuring all forms which need to be filled in by the claimant will be available in electronic format”, which she said was “absolutely necessary”.

Campbell said the DLA form was “complex” and “could have been improved upon”, but the new system was “much worse and still contains a self-assessment form, which, to add insult to injury, is no longer accessible”.

23 May 2013