Paralympic athlete made to fight for her benefits

By Emma Evans in Local People

A YOUTH paralympian from Brecon had to prove her disability before the courts after a 13 month battle with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Despite being classified in the same category as an arm amputee and in receipt of the higher Disability Living Allowance (DLA) rate since she was a child, Rhiannon Barber was left with no choice but to fight for the level of Personal Independent Payment (PIP) she said she was entitled to.

The 17-year-old’s left arm is partially paralysed due to Left Erbs Palsy, meaning she has to carryout a rigorous exercise regime to be able to carryout the day-to-day tasks, such as picking up objects, cooking and brushing her hair, that most of us take for granted. She has undergone scores of operations over the years and is susceptible to injury.

Rhiannon, from Ffynon Dewi, Llanfaes, said: "For 16-years I was entitled to the higher rate of DLA. I was assessed every two years to make sure all of my needs were met but when I turned 16 I had to apply for PIP. My mother was really ill so I had to fill in all of the forms myself, as well as trying to study for my GCSEs and applying for grants so I could do my AS Levels at Christchurch College.

"Filling the forms in was stressful enough, I was lucky to get help from the Citizens Advice Bureau, but when it came to being assessed it was just me and Mum."

Rhiannon’s mum Clair said the woman who assessed her paralympic daughter blind-sided them and wasn’t equipped with the knowledge or skills to understand the disability.

"The report didn’t fit with what happened when she was here," said Clair, who herself has been hit by Encephalitis, a debilitating illness which means she too needs support. "We asked her what her profession was and she said that she an occupational therapist. She was here for just 45 minutes.

"How on earth can you get a true idea of what a person’s needs are in less than an hour!"

Rhiannon was left distraught by the assessment but even more upset when she read the subsequent report on which her application for support was based on.

"I got really upset talking to the assessor," said Rhiannon. "But in the report she said I appeared happy and calm. How could she say that when I was in tears telling her about the things I struggle with? I have been assessed by specialists who understand Erbs Palsy to qualify for the Paralympic Team. These experts put me in the F46 category, the same classification as a full arm amputee. But this woman didn’t understand my needs, I was so angry. I was even more furious when one of the letters advised against appealing, which made me even more determined to fight and win."

Rhiannon’s 13-month battle culminated in an appearance before Llandrindod Wells magistrates, on February 2, but just getting to the court was a struggle for the teen.

She said: "I can’t use public transport without help because I can’t carry things or steady myself when the bus is moving. My friend had a bus pass as well as me for school so that she could support me. If they hadn’t chosen to put me on the lower rate of PIP, I would have been able to learn to drive to be able to get myself around. I have missed out on the support that could have increased my independence this passed year. I haven’t been able to train with the other paralympians in Cardiff because I can’t get there so I have to train without my team mates."

"Mum used to drive me everywhere but she can’t anymore. She wasn’t well enough to come to court so my grandfather had to drive from Hull to take me . I wasn’t frightened, I was angry that I was being put through all of this. The magistrates decided that I was entitled to the higher rate of allowance but I was warned before that the DWP can appeal."

A promising long jumper, Rhiannon’s dream is to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. She currently trains with the Disability Sport Wales Academy in Cardiff. Her hopes of competing in her other event, the discus, were dashed when the event was dropped from the Paralympics programme.

The Drama student has no plans to give up highlighting the struggles genuinely disabled people are going through.

"I have launched a Facebook campaign, which is getting so much support. I want to lobby Parliament and the House of Lords to intervene and look into why this is going on. I am also writing a play to help people fully understand how this has impacted on me and hundreds more people."

Clair admits that welfare reform was needed to ensure that those who were committing benefit fraud were identified and held accountable. She said: "But, how can they say that a girl who has been chosen for the paralympic team, because of her disability, is not entitled to the support she had previously been receiving. I am so proud of Rhiannon for standing up and fighting for what she believes in, as well as securing grants to go to school, studying for her future and training for the paralympics. She is inspirational."

You can show your support for Rhiannon via her Facebook page.