As a disabled person with many years’ experience of Access to Work (ATW), my expectations of using the scheme when offered a new job with Aspire were, in the words of the shipping forecast, ‘fair to good’.  And on making my initial call to the ATW contact centre, following receipt of Aspire’s offer on 14 September, all seemed quite hopeful.  I was informed that an adviser would call me and this went according to schedule. From here on however, something akin to a plot from Dr Who, complete with paradoxes in the space-time continuum, began to unfold. 

My initial question to the very upbeat ATW adviser was whether she could give me a rough idea of how long the assessment process was likely to take, in order for Aspire and myself to agree a realistic start date.  It transpired, however, that to commence the application process I would need to provide a start date first.  I wondered how Aspire and I could set a practicable start date without any indication of how long the assessment process would take but I was informed my application couldn’t progress without that information. So my application was closed and I was invited to call the contact centre again when I had a start date when an Adviser would be allocated to begin my application. 

In order to allow what we felt was a reasonable timeframe for me to compile the supporting information for my application, and for the ATW team to process it, Aspire and I set a start date of 12th October.  I immediately called the ATW contact centre, and was informed that an Adviser would call me.  And here’s where the ATW space-time paradox effect first kicked in; I received the call from my newly allocated adviser late one evening and was told that she was phoning to schedule a call for 14th October when we would begin my application – effectively deferring the start of my application for support to work to a date 2 days after I should have been in post.  It certainly raised a question as to the value and necessity of providing a start date to commence the application process.

The 14th October appointment consisted of a very comprehensive 2 hour phone interview, culminating in a list of supporting information I was to provide by Friday 23rd October.  There however, was still reluctance on the part of the Adviser to give any indication of when to expect a decision regarding my application.  The 23rd October arrived, the supporting information had been collated and submitted and here the next space-time paradox effect unfolded; I was informed by the Adviser that, as she had not been furnished with a start date, my application would be closed until one could be provided.  Incredulity doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings.

Once again, even though we had no realistic idea what a reasonable start date might be in light of the unpredictability of the ATW process, Aspire and I plumped for a new date of 9th November.  And once again I called the ATW contact centre, and once again was informed that an Adviser would call.  They duly did, and an appointment made for Wednesday 4th November.  By the afternoon on 4th November I’d heard nothing but I’d been out and about so I checked my voicemail and found a message saying that as I hadn’t kept our appointment my application would be closed and I’d have to call the contact centre to reapply.  I emailed the Adviser informing her that I would be calling her in the morning and expected my application to be processed as I had been available for our appointment, but the mobile phone signal had obviously been poor when she called.  When I did call, my application was processed the same day, enabling me to finally start with Aspire on 9th November, almost two months after being offered the position.

I don’t believe the nature of support for which I was applying – screen reading software, travel to work costs and a support worker – is particularly complex or unusual.  And yet it wasn’t possible for the ATW team to provide either myself or my employer with an indication of how long the process would take. The perverse impact of this was not only to prevent us from identifying a realistic start date but it also resulted in the closure of my application on two occasions. The scheduling of the appointment to open my application two days after I should have been in post also introduces a bewildering and paradoxical quality to the experience. It’s difficult to understand why an Adviser would delay my initial interview by two weeks, knowing this would be two days after I should have been in post.  To then close my application due to the absence of a start date, which they themselves had disregarded and effectively nullified, is quite unacceptable. What is also apparent is that Advisers are extremely keen to close applications, forcing the applicant to approach the ATW contact centre anew and resulting in a different Adviser being allocated each time. 

It is clear that there is a disconnect between the terms on which the ATW service can be provided and the needs of the applicant and their prospective employer. In this particular case, my application was ultimately turned around in a matter of hours and yet it took three attempts and many weeks to get there.  The Adviser who finally completed my application did suggest that the varying manner in which my application had been handled was a reflection of the differing attitudes and styles of individual ATW Advisers. 

It seems to me that, while Access to Work is a wonderful aid in securing genuine employment for many disabled people, it simply isn’t good enough that its service users should be subject to such uncertainty and variability of service.  I am fortunate that my employer is Aspire.  One can only wonder how someone experiencing similar difficulties with ATW might fare if their employer wasn’t as committed to supporting disabled people. Prospective employers and applicants have the right to expect consistency and continuity in the delivery of the ATW service and to be provided with information that enables them to make realistic and timely decisions, ensuring a smooth and supportive recruitment process for disabled employees. After all, isn’t that why Access to Work exists?

Written by Andy Shipley, Policy Manager at Aspire