And so it begins in Britain. John Kerr of Dundee, Scotland, who is blind, deaf, eats via tube, and doesn’t communicate verbally will have his benefits cut on June 7th because the person who filled out forms on his behalf that the Department of Works and Pensions required made an error. I don’t know what forms, or the nature of the error; media coverage on this over the Internet is scarce. According to disability blogger and advocate Nicky Clark, however, the form was substantial (over 30 pages), and Kerr’s options now are either to find employment or go through an appeals process to attempt to get his benefits reinstated.
Waiting on John Kerr Details
I admit that I’ve known about John Kerr and his story story since last Friday and held off on blogging about it. I’ve wanted to see what the Department of Works and Pensions would do. I’ve seen the Ontario Disability Support Program send letters saying that income supports have been cut off because the recipient hasn’t provided requested information, and that they can appeal the decision; often a phone call to the intake worker assuring them that the requested information is indeed on its way is enough to get the suspension reversed before the next cheque is issued (depending on the date and the information required). But according to Nicky Clark, this error is going to take weeks to rectify, potentially leaving John Kerr and his caregivers in a very bad financial situation.
Who’s to Blame for What’s Happened to John Kerr?
I’ve seen arguments that the people who filled out the form for John Kerr need to lie in the bed that they’ve made regarding his benefits cut. After all, the government can’t be held responsible if someone makes a mistake and creates a situation like this, whether they intended to or not, they argue.
My technical writing training tells me otherwise. If these forms are so unclear that someone could make a mistake so crucial that it costs them their benefits, then they’re not well-designed enough. The design flaw could be a number of things (or many of them):
- It’s not clear on the form what the response process needs to be. Where does the form need to go? By what date? Addressed to whom?
- It’s not clear how to respond to respond to the questions. On scale questions, which end of the scale is most severe, and which is least severe? What if two answers apply to a given question? Can you attach paper if you need more than the allotted space to comment?
- The questions themselves are unclear. What if you have a learning disorder and you’re unsure to whom you should go for help? What about people with low literacy levels?
- It’s unclear how crucial accuracy is. Clearly it was for this particular form.
Obviously a form can’t be developed that meets absolutely everyone’s needs, but there *is* a process by which technical writers try to make documents as accessible to as many people as possible. Government forms aren’t particularly user-friendly (as I’m sure all of you know), which is why I used to spend a lot of time with people I supported and their families assisting them to fill out forms – precisely so this sort of thing didn’t happen. Not that I’m perfect and don’t make mistakes, but I’ve filled out a lot of the forms now and find them a lot less terrifying than people I worked with and their families did.
No One Should Live in Fear of Losing Benefits Over One Mistake On a Form
Or two…or three. This story and its suggestion that you have to be a robot who doesn’t make mistakes instead of a human being who may be dealing with multiple challenges as you fill out a large government form suggests to me that this is just another way that Britain is experimenting with thinning the ranks of people on benefits. It’s underhanded and insidious, as many people (like John Kerr) do need substantial assistance filling out the forms, and are powerless as to whether it’s submitted with mistakes or not.
And it’s just plain not right.