Rape, privilege and stupidity

An awful lot of fuss has been made about Rebecca Watson, an anonymous guy in a lift, and what Richard Dawkins said about it. See Blag Hag: Context matters for the original story and Blag Hag: Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing for what Dawkins said about it.

For those that don’t know, here’s a brief outline. Watson spoke at an atheist conference in Dublin. She talked about sexism and misogyny  in the atheist community and her experience of it. Later that night at 4am she told everyone that she was going to bed, and left the bar. As she got in the lift to go to her room, a man got in with her. He said “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee.”

Speaking about the incident later in a video blog Watson said “Just a word to the wise here, guys: don’t do that. I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4am in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. and I… don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner.”

Later on, Richard Dawkins left three comments on a blog post about it. These comments used very derisive language, compared this incident to female genital mutilation and to oppression of women in Muslim countries, women being banned from driving, being beaten by their husbands and stoned to death for adultery. He also said that because she didn’t suffer physically in this incident, that there was no problem.

This whole thing has already been talked about extensively, so I’m just going to state my opinion. The guy in the lift was an idiot. He waited until a woman was in a vulnerable situation (trapped in a lift alone) and asked her back to his room when she had just stated that she was going to bed. I think that most women would be uncomfortable at this. Certainly all that I have spoken to said that they would be. Rape is not rare, and most women take care not to be in a situation where they are alone with a man that they don’t know, especially if they cannot simply walk away as in this situation. The man here was thoughtless and stupid to ask the question under those circumstances.

However, this doesn’t merit a huge fuss. It happened, it was mentioned in passing on a video blog. Lessons learned, carry on. But no, Dawkins had to chip in with his insensitive comparison from a privileged viewpoint and enrage women everywhere.

Dawkins is an old rich white man. He has never been in fear of rape. He has never carried a rape alarm, been told to dress modestly for fear of “asking for it” or avoided situations or walking routes where rape could happen out of sight. As a man if he ever was raped there would be no question of blaming the victim for dressing the wrong way or being in the wrong place. Dawkins probably isn’t aware that at least 47,000 adult women are raped every year in the UK, or that rape is one of the most under reported crimes and has an extremely low prosecution rate. Dawkins is privileged. He should have stopped to consider this before weighing in and insulting people or making stupid comparisons. As Sam points out in the comments below, Blag Hag later stated that Dawkins is not a misogynist, and said “So even though his heart was probably in the right place, he was being dismissive. But more disappointing than his initial obliviousness about his privilege was his stubborn denial of said obliviousness when called out on it.”

So: man in lift, hapless idiot. Dawkins, bloody stupid and thoughtless. Other men: try not to corner women and make them feel threatened when you’re trying to ask them out. OK?

Related links

Blag Hag: Context matters

Blag Hag: Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing

Blag Hag: Dawkins is not a misogynist

Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced

Richard Dawkins original comments on Pharyngula

Secret film project

You may have noticed that I haven’t written quite as much here on my blog recently. Apart from being quite ill, one of the reasons for this is that I have been working on a new project. I am making a short film which is a new form of media for me. In the last two weeks I have been filming, editing, re-filming, re-editing, swearing at video editing software, and generally spending a lot of time learning how to do this!

Unfortunately I have a few changes to make after a couple of preview screenings, and so it will be a few more days before I release the final edit. If anyone wants to give me some feedback, I can arrange access to the preview version on Youtube if you send me your Youtube account name. Email me – latentexistence at gmail.com

What’s wrong with ATOS


Cross posted at Disabled People Against Cuts

In two weeks I have to undergo a Work Capability Assessment which will determine whether or not I will continue to receive Employment and Support Allowance while I am ill. I will be placed into one of two groups: the Support Group, who are judged sick enough to be left alone to receive ESA, or the Work Related Activity Group, who are thought able to attend several Work Focused Interviews and eventually to be able to work if pushed enough. If by some miracle I am suddenly cured, I could be declared fit to work and moved on to Job Seekers Allowance and classed as unemployed.

That all sounds OK, you might think. It sounds reasonable, we have to make sure that sick and disabled people receive support, and the the work shy are sent back to work. But there’s a problem. It isn’t my GP that will carrying out this assessment. Nor is it any hospital specialist. It’s not even the Department of Work and Pensions that will carry out this test, even though they requested it. No, instead of any of these, it is a French IT company called ATOS that will decide if I am fit to work or not. Specifically, a division of ATOS called ATOS Healthcare that has been contracted by the DWP to carry out these assessments and provide “medical advice” at a cost of £100 million a year. “That’s absurd!” you may say. What does an IT company know about health? Well, that doesn’t matter, according to ATOS. They have developed a computer system called LiMA that records the patients answers given in an interview, and makes the decision based on points. It’s all very straightforward. What could possibly go wrong?

Well obviously something has, because ATOS is the subject of strong protest. On twitter and on blogs anger against ATOS has been obvious, cropping up again and again. In the physical world campaigners have held extensive protests outside ATOS buildings, with signs and slogans like “ATOS kills” and “ATOS don’t give a toss.” ATOS recruitment fares have been targetted too. When sick and disabled people are scared and angry enough to picket a company, wheelchairs and crutches and all, there might just be something wrong. A commons select committee has been investigating the Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance, and while questioning senior executives from ATOS healthcare MP Stephen Lloyd said that Atos was “feared and loathed probably in equal terms” by the families and friends of disabled people. Lisa Coleman, a senior manager at ATOS, said that “fear and misunderstanding” could be blamed on claimants “not really understanding the role that Atos plays”.

So what is the problem with ATOS? Well, for a start, the computer can only work with what it is told. And what it is told is keywords. The examiner asks questions about things such as walking, reaching, communicating and controlling the bowels. The answers don’t really matter much, because the examiner stares fixedly at the computer screen and picks keywords and numbers from a list as they are mentioned and the computer assembles them into a sentence and fills in the gaps. This has often resulted in some absurd and misleading statements. Some genuine examples include “usually can do light gardening for 1 minutes” and “The client’s Amputation of Upper Limb is mild. They have seen a specialist for this problem.” Another claimant stated that she pottered about all day; it was recorded as “Customer does pottery all day.” After the questioning is complete there is usually a very short physical examination. The claimant may poked and prodded and instructed to stand up, raise their arms, pick something up, or make other movements. It is all very rushed and does not leave time or scope for much useful data to be gathered. In addition the examiner records observations about the patients ability to walk and talk while at the assessment.

This assessment is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, the data gathering process is inaccurate and rushed. Staff carrying out the assessment have strict targets and are expected to get through five assessments in a morning or afternoon session, which allows about 45 minutes per assessment at most. People that have been through the process complain that the examiner spent their time looking at the computer rather than paying attention to them.

Once the examination is over the examiner produces a report that may bear little resemblance to the patient’s actual condition. The reports often fail to take into account the variable nature of many illnesses. What the patient can do on one day is by no means representative of what they can do the next, and for someone who is chronically sick or disabled, each task in itself may be achievable but exhaustion and pain can often prevent repetition or moving on to the next task.

An ATOS examiner might note that a person can sit at a computer, walk to the shops, cook a meal, and wash themselves. What they fail to note is that it might well only be possible to do one of those things on any given day! Being fit to work in an office, for example, involves a series of tasks – washing, dressing, commuting, sitting, talking, thinking, typing, holding the telephone, holding a pen, making decisions, defending those decisions, and much more. I could do any of those things, sometimes, maybe, but I could not do them all together, and I certainly could not make any guarantees about when I could do them or how long it would take, or even guarantee to do them at all. ATOS cares not. If you say that you can ever manage a task, it is assumed that you can do all of the tasks all of the time. They may well assume that because I could write and record this article, I could write for a living. They don’t see that it took me several days to write including many hours of frustration as my body left me in too much pain or fatigue to think or type.

Another flaw is that the ATOS assessment process can often be harmful in itself. For example, I could usually raise my arm above my head when asked. It would result in pain and fatigue which the examiner would not see. It would also be harder to do a second time, and after a few goes I would be unable to do it at all. The ATOS examiner would simply note that I could manage it the first time and would take no account of whether or not I could do it again or what price I paid for doing it.

More problems occur because at least a fifth of ATOS medical centres are not wheelchair accessible. Only one third of the centres have onsite parking, while visitors are required to walk from car parks several minutes away for other centres, and just one has a parking space for disabled people. 30 of the centres are not on the ground floor some don’t even have lifts! Considering that people only visit these buildings when they are sick or disabled and a huge number of them will be using walking sticks or wheelchairs, this is ridiculous.

For many people, just getting to the ATOS medical examination centre can be a major challenge. In a letter sent out to notify me of my impending assessment I was helpfully sent a suggested journey plan. It included bus, train and 17 minutes of walking. I do understand that the journey plan is a standard item sent out to all claimants, and this is why they have suggested that I walk despite them being fully aware that I cannot stay on my feet for more than a couple of minutes.  But I can’t be the only one that would have trouble with that journey. In fact, I would suggest that a majority of  people that claim ESA would find it difficult. Whether that be through inability to stand or walk, or pain, or fatigue, or because of a lack of accessible buses, or through mental health problems that get worse when around other people or attempting a task such as travelling. The problem is that many people will attempt and complete the journey at great cost to their own health, purely because they feel that they have to. Again, ATOS would merely note that the journey had been completed, and not what it cost in terms of pain, fatigue and recovery time.

It is not just the people subject to the tests that are unhappy with the situation. As I mentioned above, a commons select committee has been investigating the Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance.  In February, Dr Margaret McCartney attended a recruitment evening with ATOS Healthcare and reported back in the British Medical Journal. She noted that apart from doctors, ATOS also recruit nurses and physiotherapists for the same role, and that patients often would not be examined by anyone with knowledge of their health conditions. She reported that ATOS said “You are not in a typical caring role. This isn’t about diagnosing.” and “We don’t call them patients . . . We call them claimants.”  She said that “Throughput is a clear focus” and that “from the recruitment evening it was clear that the medical examination consisted of a computerised form to be filled in by choosing drop down statements and justifying them. For example, you could say “able to walk with ease” if you witnessed this or the patient told you this.” Even Professor Paul Gregg, who was involved in designing the test has said “The test is badly malfunctioning. The current assessment is a complete mess.

Since ATOS have taken over the assessments for ESA, both ESA and the contract with ATOS originating from our last government, by the way, the number of people being judged fit for work has risen substantially but high numbers of those go on to appeal with a 40% success rate at overturning the decision. That rises to 70% of cases overturned when representation is provided. This has caused alarm to a great many people with groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland reporting “Our evidence has highlighted the cases of many clients with serious health conditions who have been found fit for work, including those with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, bipolar disorder, heart failure, strokes, severe depression, and agoraphobia.” In fact there have been several recent cases where people have died soon after being judged fit for work and while waiting for their appeal. In one case the patient died IN the ATOS building after his assessment. On the day of the funeral his family received a letter notifying them that he had been declared fit for work.

Clearly, the Work Capability Assessment needs a rethink. Actually, the whole system by which benefits are controlled needs a rethink. Government insist that GPs can be trusted to take over administration and budgeting of the NHS from Primary Care Trusts, and yet they do not trust GPs and specialists to say whether or not their patient is capable of work or needs to rest at home.  The current arrangement for ATOS to assess patients does not and cannot provide for accurate assessment and proper care.


Related Links

Margret McCartney reports for the BMJ: Well enough to work?

The Guardian: New disability test ‘is a complete mess’, says expert

ESA and how the Lima computer system says “NO”

The Guardian: ‘The medical was an absolute joke’

MP asks Atos bosses why their company is ‘feared and loathed’

Disability activists demonstrate against Atos Origin – London

3 more assessed “fit for work” by ATOS die

BBC Ouch: ATOS assessment centres not accessible

Commons Select Committee: Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance

Disabled People Against Cuts: Atos don’t give a toss!

DPAC – Debbie Jolly: The Billion Pound Welfare Reform Fraud: fit for work?

 PCS – Welfare: an alternative vision [PDF]




We won’t take it

Listen, Conservatives, LibDems, Labour. Listen, all you people who swallow the story fed to you by politicians. I’ve got something to say to you.

You sell our schools, our hospitals, and our care homes. You dismantle our NHS so that rich service providers can make profit out of it. You hand over our schools to businesses, and you charge our students a lifetime of debt for a university education. You slash the services provided by our local councils, cut the carers, raise the rent of social housing and yet cut housing benefit. You  throw money at the banks that lost theirs through lending fictional money to everyone, yet you borrow the money from those same banks in the first place. You destroy pensions that you promised in return for long, hard services. You abandon sick and disabled people to whatever squalor they manage to live in when you will not provide basic accommodation, care, and food. You believe that those people could simply try harder to be well, that all without a job could somehow find one tomorrow. You encourage big business to leech from our economy and use our services while diverting fat profits to tax havens instead of paying their way. You tell us that there is no alternative. We say bullshit. You don’t represent us. None of you do. You represent your own greed, prejudice and indifference. You try to force us to be the way that you want us to be instead of listening to your voters the way that you are supposed to. You say that strikes are wrong, we say that we are fighting for our country back. We will not stand by while a wealthy political elite destroys us, without even noticing the suffering that is caused – because you don’t even care enough to notice.

We are parents and children, single people and families, young and old, students, manual labourers, office workers. We are teachers, carers, social workers, prison officers. We are cleaners and shopkeepers. We are sick and well.

And we are ANGRY.

We won’t take your shit any more. We will strike, and we will protest, and we will NOT do what you tell us. Ignore us, and you will be sorry. Just look at what is happening all across the world. People will not take your crap any longer.

Leave the banks to dig their own way out. Shut down the IMF before it forces famine and destruction on any more countries. And get your greedy fucking hands off everything that we have built.

J30 strike


You can’t have failed to notice that yesterday quite a lot of public sector workers were on strike. The NUT, ATL, UCU, UNISON, PCS and supported by many campaigners and groups were out picketing and marching. Ostensibly striking over changes to their pensions, actually the anger goes a lot further than that and general anger at the government was overwhelming.

These are the people that teach our children, run our prisons, care for our sick and disabled people, and are behind just about every public service that we rely on and often don’t even notice until they are not there. They generally work for low pay, but are at least promised a pension and often an early retirement from gruelling work that has worn them down quicker than many other jobs. That pension has always been there as an enticement to work in the public sector but now the government are reneging on that deal and demanding a 50% increase in payments, up to eight years longer before retirement, and offering less pension at the end of it. They say that this is because we must all make cuts to fix the deficit, but this is widely disputed, and now our public sector workers are very very angry.

I was out with the marchers yesterday, supporting them and representing Disabled People Against Cuts as a speaker at the rally in Birmingham. My wife was there too as a teacher and a member of ATL.

Here is a video of my speech for those that missed it. The text is available at the DPAC website. Writing credit goes to Ellen of DPAC as I was too brainfogged to write it in time.


Believe it or not this is actually the first time that I have been able to attend a protest in person rather than supporting them online as I have been too ill to do so. That hasn’t really changed, but what made the difference is being given an electric wheelchair. I was able to stay seated all through travelling, the rally and the march and so made it through to the end of the day. Of course staying seated all day is extremely difficult and painful for me in itself, but I was at least able to get through it where I wouldn’t get through more than a few minutes of standing and walking before collapsing in pain.

Attending yesterday has had the expected consequences and today has been immensely painful, and I have had to stay in bed all day. For large parts of the day I have been drifting in and out of consciousness, too tired to stay awake too ill to sleep and often waking up surprised and confused. I’m beginning to feel better now, more than 24 hours after getting home. That’s actually a remarkably short recovery time for someone with M.E. but I have no doubt that I will suffer the effects for a few more days. It was absolutely worth it though.

Related Links

June 30th DPAC supports striking public sector workers in Birmingham

Lots more photos from DPAC at Flickr

My miserable efforts at photography!