Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran the astounding story that a disabled man qualified for the benefits he received. Their surprise was great – this was a man who was a magistrate, taught salsa dancing and had taken part in a TV show involving extreme sport. Clearly, there was no possible explanation compatible with this man genuinely being too ill to work.
Except, there was such an explanation. The Mail, it appeared, had fallen for the capital mistake Sherlock Holmes never made – that of theorising without all the data. As Holmes said, there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
The facts are these. The man was a salsa teacher. His doctor had recommended salsa dancing as an activity, to avoid sitting around doing nothing. You’d think the Mail would be pleased – after all, exercise is often an important part of health management, and the government has speculated about making receiving physiotherapy a condition of receiving benefit for those with conditions such as chronic back pain. This was not possible though for Mr Middleton; he was unable to learn to be a dancer. So, pro-actively, in a manner opposite to ‘work-shy’ or ‘feckless lay-about,’ he took up a passive role in salsa teaching.
Previously he had tried volunteering once a week at a zoo, but was unable to continue as it ‘became apparent it was “beyond his physical capabilities.”’
Mr Middleton took part in a Channel 4 show, Coach Trip, in 2011. According to the Channel 4 website, this is a “Light-hearted competition that provides a unique travel guide to Europe, as 14 tourists are brought together for an epic coach trip across the continent.” The show contains footage of Mr Middleton taking part in various activities including abseiling and salsa dancing. What it does not show is the preparation involved for Mr Middleton; the medication he had to take; and the consequences of taking part in these activities.
Mr Middleton carries out magistrate duties. A magistrate is ‘a volunteer who hears cases in courts in their community.’ They are required to work only 13 days, or 26 half-days, a year – not much more than one day a month. District judge Morgan said, “The magistracy prides itself on being open to anyone of any ability so I do not find that this is a point the court can attach any importance to.” That is, being able to sit through court hearings for one day, or two half-days, a month does not equate to being capable of full-time work.
So we have here a man who suffers from chronic pain. He cannot stand. He cannot prepare his own meals. It is painful for him to move. He suffers from limited mobility.
And he tried not to be feckless, not to be a lay-about, not to remain isolated from his community. He recognised that whilst he cannot contribute to society through paid work and income tax, he can contribute through unpaid work and VAT. And precisely because he is not a scrounger or a shirker or work-shy, he did and continues to choose to contribute to his community in the ways open to him.
But because of his efforts to contribute, he was judged and vilified as a cheat and scrounger. Because the people who accused him saw only snap-shots – saw what he did and not how much he paid for it – he was misjudged.
Mr Middleton has now been vindicated. But this practice continues. People judge on what they see, but they don’t see everything.
A strong young man is glared at as he comes out of a disabled toilet – but he has a urostomy and a colostomy and has to flush his bowels out every other day. A man ‘on the sick’ drives a fancy car – which he rents at £50/week plus a £1500 advance payment, and needs because it is the only type of car he can get in and out of. A woman is seen walking her children to school – she is too exhausted to drive safely, she is out of favours from other school-childrens’ parents, she can’t afford a taxi-fare and it’s the third day in a row her children will miss school if she doesn’t walk them there. Her face is a clown’s mask to hide the pain from her children.
Appearances are deceiving. You can’t judge a person’s eligibility for sickness benefit by looking at him or her. So don’t do it.
 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle