Huffington Post UK | Posted: 04/12/2012 14:20 GMT Updated: 04/12/2012 14:20 GMT
A disabled man has described his distress after being left stranded inside an Atos centre when the fire alarm went off.
Geoff Meeghan, 32, suffers from early-onset Parkinsons and was being assessed over whether he was ‘fit for work’ at a centre in Neasden, north-west London, when the fire alarm sounded.
The doctor he was with rushed out and a security guard whom he asked for help promised assistance which never came.
He was abandoned at the top of the stairs, after being told not to use the lift.
Speaking to the Independent, Mr Meeghan said that even though he can tackle stairs with help, “it was a highly stressful situation and I felt like it was far too risky.
“I was worried that flames might come up the stairs and that I might fall or something. It wasn’t a drill.
“We could see the fire engine arriving outside. I feel like there was a general lack of respect for disabled people at Atos – they make you feel as though you’ve done something wrong by being disabled – like you’re being persecuted.”
More than two million people are currently being assessed as part of a government drive to encourage people off benefits and back to work. Atos Healthcare conducts the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) ‘fitness to work’ tests on behalf of the government, but the final decision to cut or award benefits rests with the DWP.
The company has faced widespread criticism over their assessments with anti-cuts and disability campaigners claiming that inaccurate testing is forcing disabled people to live in poverty and in some cases driving them to take their own life.
On Monday disability campaigners laid wreaths at the Cenotaph in George Square, Glasgow, claiming cuts caused 73 deaths a week.
Earlier in November employment minister Mark Hoban highlighted that 31 of 123 centres used by Atos did not have ground floor access and questioned whether they were indeed ‘fit for purpose.’
A Parkinson’s UK worker stayed with Meegham, who had attended the assessment with his sister, when he became distressed during the fire alarm.
Steve Ford, Chief Executive of Parkinson’s UK said:“It is incredible that Atos Healthcare – an organisation charged with assessing the needs of disabled people – is ill-equipped to handle even their most basic of requirements. It is unacceptable that people with progressive and incurable conditions are being hauled into assessment centres that simply aren’t fit for purpose.
“People with Parkinson’s tell us all too often that the realities of their condition are being ignored. These vulnerable people already face huge uncertainty as their condition develops, it is about time that they were spared further anxiety when asking the government for help.”
An Atos spokesperson told the Huffington Post UK: “This should never have happened and we apologise unreservedly. We will be getting in contact with Mr Meeghan directly.
“We have since reviewed this case internally with the building security and management team to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”