Nikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University. She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats. In this week’s guest blog, Nikki tells us what she has learned from recent dealings with Work and Income New Zealand.
I was always brought up to be nice. One of the reasons my parents were so strict about this was because I had a disability. It was one factor, they reasoned, that would make some people in the world (without disabilities) apprehensive when dealing with me. Better not to give them another. Don’t get me wrong, I have a perfectly nice, non-disabled brother too. But with me carrying the extra baggage of having a disability, they just thought it was especially important for me to be nice.
As a result, particularly whenever dealing with different services or disability organisations, I have spent my life saying, “please, would you…”, “if you could just…” and “if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”
All of that upbringing flew temporarily out the door last month. The reason? One single encounter with Work and Income over a review form.
It all started with the arrival of the dreaded form in the post, heralding visits to doctors, pharmacies and the bank, as well as my boss writing yet another letter explaining my rather unusual employment situation (he does it every year, bless). And every year during this process, I ask myself (along with dozens, if not hundreds, of others going through the same procedure, I’m sure): Why do I have to prove yet again that I have a permanent disability? What part of “permanent” don’t Work and Income understand?
Apparently the reason for this annual pilgrimage is officially “to make Work and Income aware of any changes in my situation that may affect my Supported Living Allowance” (or words to that effect). But surely I can make them aware of this myself if any changes did occur? And, if I don’t, isn’t it more likely to be to my disadvantage, given the cost of living can only go one way – up?
But I digress. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the process, it was always going to be much more difficult this year than any other, as I am temporarily without transport. This makes the visits to doctor, pharmacy, etc, nearly impossible – or at least very expensive.
The main problem this year was the medical certificate – apart from the fact that it was going to be the most costly and time-consuming to obtain, I felt it had been requested in error. Two years earlier a doctor, who was not my regular, ticked the “2 years” box under “expected duration of disability”. Unfortunately I didn’t notice this until it had been handed in. The problem has since been rectified, or so I had thought.
I rang and explained this to the very nice guy at the Work and Income call centre, who after consultation with some unknown person at his end, came back to me and said, “No problem, you don’t have to submit the medical certificate, just the rest.” Thanking him profusely, I reflected on what a benevolent government department Work and Income really is. To let me off with the most expensive – albeit wholly unnecessary – bit of the entire exercise, so that the rest could be done by e-mail, phone or post, was nothing short of a miracle of kindness.
So armed with what I thought were all the documents I’d need, and having arranged a lift with a friend, I set out to my appointment three days ahead of the deadline. Oh, how proud I was of myself for being so organised. Just before leaving, however, I thought I would give the Work and Income call centre one more call , to make doubly sure they had it on record that I didn’t need the medical certificate.
“But – but I spoke to so-and-so,” I protested, proud of myself nonetheless for having remembered his name. But to no avail. I needed the medical certificate, or else my benefit would be automatically suspended three days and one second later. I could never get an appointment with my doctor that soon.
Seeing my panic, my husband had a brilliant idea: “Ask to speak to the manager.”
I was skeptical at first – everyone who has ever done it knows that when you call Work and Income, all you ever get to speak to is the person on the phone. Nobody ever says they’re going to pass you on to someone with a higher authority. It’s just not done. But I was desperate. So, I took a deep breath, put on my Big Girl Pants, and – handed the phone to hubby (who is an agent for me at Work and Income). Sure enough, the words “let me speak to your manager” were uttered, and hey presto, a manager he spoke to! After he’d explained the very long story to this (lovely) person, she agreed to look into the matter. Just as well there were still three days left before my benefit was due to expire.
A short but very stressful, fingernail-biting, thumb-sucking, hand-wringing, fingers-through-hair-running time later, I stood nervously at the Work and Income front desk, handing in my documents. “Where’s your med certificate?” asked the rather officious-looking woman on duty.
My knees knocking, I said a short prayer of thanks for my parents, who had taught me how to be nice, and my hubby, for showing me how to be firm. Screwing up my courage, I said in my most confident voice, “They asked for one in error. The Christchurch call centre said so. You’ll need to call them and speak to their manager.”
And no, my benefit wasn’t suspended. Nice.
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