51 year old Russel Barton was registered partially sighted five months ago (Photo: Russell Burton)
Russell Burton was registered partially sighted earlier this year, after burning himself with oil and setting his clothing on fire accidently at work. Burton has worked as a professional chef for the 25 years, but says his deteriorating eyesight means that he is unable to carry on in that job.
Now he fears for his future because the Department of Work and Pensions have claimed he is ‘fit for work’ so he isn’t eligible for disability benefit.
Yet he cannot apply for work as a chef and he lacks the skills and experience to be considered for other roles. He says after 10 months of signing on he’s had no help with retraining from the government.
Burton had tried to keep his health problems hidden from his bosses, but was “let go of” four times in 18 months after repeatedly missing orders and following several accidents in the kitchen. The last time this happened, in January this year, Burton said he had to acknowledge that he had to leave behind the career he’s known and loved all of his life. Then, five months ago, his doctor approved him as registered partially sighted.
Burton says he has been switched back and forth between Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) six times this year – and each time his money is delayed, which is making him depressed and anxious. He added “Each time they switch me between benefits I can be waiting a month of two for my money. They just tell me ‘go to a food bank”.
“No-one will hire me as a chef anymore and I know myself I just can’t be in a kitchen anymore because I’m a health and safety risk to myself and to others. I tried to hide it for the last five years but I clearly can’t anymore.
“I’m keen to find a new career but no-one gets back to me when I apply for jobs I’ve no experience in. The Job Centre has promised me help with retraining but I’ve had zero support so far.”
He explains: “One time I was holding a tea towel that caught fire and then the sleeves of my top went up.”
Since birth, Russell’s left eye as been affected by amblyopia. The childhood condition means that vision doesn’t develop properly. Children with this problem can see less clearly out of the affected eye and rely more on the ‘good’ eye. This has caused blind spots and double vision for Burton.
Five years ago, he suffered macular scarring in the righ eye — his ‘good eye’ — as an amateur photographer, as he was trying to capture the sun’s corona, which caused his central vision to go blurred and distorted.
Burton says he’s keen to find a new career path but wants some help with re-training
He explained how his deteriorating eyesight impacted on his chef work: “I was missing tickets – in a restaurant a chef could get 120 tickets an hour and I was struggling to read them. There were times I cut myself chopping, you’re under pressure to work fast and that’s dangerous without good eyesight.
“One time I was holding a tea towel that caught fire and then the sleeves of my top went up. Other times I’d splashed myself with hot oil as I hadn’t seen there was any there in the pan.”
Burton says: “There’s an awful mentality with Job Centre staff where they think it’s acceptable or normal to leave people for months without money. The system is broken.”
Burton who lives with his partner Rachel and her two children, said the uncertainty and insecurity of his income has had an impact on his mental health: “For months I became a recluse, I didn’t go out anywhere or see anyone,” he said.
He has also lost two stone over the last nine months, which he believes is due to a combination of stress and an undiagnosed stomach condition.
He said: “The doctors thought I had an ulcer but that’s now been ruled out but they don’t know what’s causing my gastrointestinal problems. It doesn’t help that when I’ve been switched to contributions based JSA or ESA I’ve not been entitled to free prescriptions so I’ve not been able to afford to buy the medicines I need to help settle my stomach.”
Burton said he feels “extremely let down” by the state.
“There’s an awful mentality with Job Centre staff where they think it’s acceptable or normal to leave people for months without money and they just say ‘go to a food bank’ when you complain.
“Food banks should be an absolute last resort for people. The system is broken.”
A system that coerces people who may, through no fault of their own, pose a danger to themselves or others to work is definitely broken. If Russell Barton has an accident in the work place, who is culpable? Barton has expained the impact of his condition, and outlined some of the consequences. The Department for Work and Pensions have taken absolutely no notice of him. He may find some work he can do, but there are serious restrictions on the kind of work he can now do.
It’s utterly appalling and cruel that people like Russell Barton are placed in situations where they are left for long periods with no income, and then forced to look for work within an extremely competitive employment market when there are such significant health and safety barriers to the kinds of work he can undertake.
It’s a social security system that has been set up intentionally to fail people, and furthermore it is placing people in unacceptable situations of danger.
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