The Government wants to reduce the number of people on disability benefits and get them back to work. While supported by many, this move has alarmed local members of the Multiple Sclerosis Society who say their symptoms make it almost impossible to even assess a sufferer’s fitness for work. Hilarie Stelfox reports

ALISON WOLFENDEN is desperate to find a job but has discovered that multiple sclerosis is not just a personal disability, it’s is also a barrier to getting employment.

Diagnosed when she was just 23, the former office worker, now 31, has been out of work since August 2009.

Her MS symptoms, following the typical relapsing and remitting pattern, are now such that she can only look for a part-time job and one that would not involve being on her feet.

Alison, who lives in Dewsbury, recently applied for a position as a supermarket check-out assistant. The interview was arranged by Remploy, an organisation that finds employment opportunities for disabled people. She was determined to make a good impression but believes she was rejected out of hand.

“I prepared myself for the interview, building myself up because it was the first interview I’d had for 18 months,” said Alison. “I even left my walking stick at home because I could do without it for a short time.

“I thought I could manage a job sitting down at the tills for a few hours a day but when I got there they said they wanted someone who could multi-task wherever needed. I wouldn’t have even applied if I’d known that. They only asked me three questions and that was it. It was all over.”

She is now angry and despondent about finding a job at all.

Alison’s MS began with “strange sensations in my right thumb that, within a week, had spread up to my neck.”

Despite drug treatment to slow down the progression of the disease she suffers relapses, on average, once every three months. In January this year she experienced ‘foot drop’, which means that she is now unsteady on her feet.

“The problem is that stress makes your symptoms worse so in my last job I was finding it too stressful working 38 hours a week and asked to go part-time,” said Alison. “But my request was refused and I had to leave. It’s a good thing getting people off benefits when they shouldn’t be getting them, but someone like me is limited in what they can do.

“Employers are not supposed to be prejudiced against disabled people but they are.”

Fortunately, Alison has the support of her husband Lee, a sheet metal worker, and her extended family. The couple have known each other for 12 years and been married for four.

Her experience highlights the simple fact that some employers are reluctant to take on people with a disability. But for those with MS, there is a further problem.

“MS is a very individual condition,” says Audrey Owen, specialist nurse for MS based at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. “Sufferers have good days and bad days. It’s not a condition that can be assessed at a specific time and place.

“Public service cuts are causing a lot of worry and stress can impact quite severely on the disease, exacerbating existing symptoms. People with MS are worried about the future and financial security.”

Audrey and her colleagues are offering to accompany MS patients to the controversial Work Capability Assessments.

“Their days aren’t uniform so asking them how far they can walk doesn’t mean anything because one day they’re quite good and on others they never leave the house,” she explained.

“Not all MS symptoms are visible either. There is fatigue and pain which can have a major impact on someone’s quality of life.”

Bruce Smith, 65, was in his late 20s when he started experiencing pins and needles in his hands and visual disturbances. At the time he had a physically demanding job in the steel industry but because the disease progressed slowly he was able to continue working.

“For nine months out of every 12 I would be perfectly fit but I’d have two weeks off work when symptoms relapsed,” he said.

Although a lumbar puncture had shown he was suffering from MS, Bruce says he was never given the test results and didn’t find out until several years later. Even then, he never told his employers because he was fearful for his job.

“But once I turned 50 I started with a drop foot (a common MS symptom) and I couldn’t work properly,’’ he said. “I was offered a redundancy package as a way of getting rid of me. My doctor said I wouldn’t work again.

“I really went downhill from then and for the last 10 years I’ve been using a wheelchair.”

Bruce and his wife, Josie – who live in Upper Cumberworth – have been married for 45 years and have two children and two grandchildren. She gave up her secretarial job back in 1999 in order to look after Bruce and they are both on reduced occupational pensions.

“We can only live as well as we do because we sold a house that we’d done up for a profit and bought a smaller bungalow,” said Bruce. “I feel frustrated because I want to care for my family and now I’m totally dependent on Josie. She looks after the house, the garden and the car – all the things I should be doing.”

MS not only damages work opportunities, it can also cause rifts in relationships. Although Bruce and Josie remain devoted, MS is a major stress factor and it’s not unknown for couples to split up after a diagnosis.

Huddersfield and Kirklees branch chairman Joanna Wilkins, 62, is cared for by her husband, David, and her 30-year-old son, Matthew.

“I couldn’t manage without them but you find that for some people having MS destroys their marriages,” she said.

Joanna, from Marsden, was not diagnosed with MS until she was in her early 50s which is considered to be late onset. She was working as a training manager, travelling all over the North of England. Although her employers were sympathetic, she eventually found that she just couldn’t cope any longer.

“One of the biggest things you lose is the network of companions and colleagues,” she added. “I had worked for 21 years in the same role. I went from being very active to being indoors alone. My husband was at work and my son had left home. It was a vast change, like a grieving process.

“The fatigue is one of the worst things and some days it can be teatime before I get out of bed. The symptoms fluctuate so much that you can be quite well one day and in bed the next. We have members who are desperately trying to work but just can’t hack it.’’

Huddersfield and Kirklees members of the Multiple Sclerosis Society will be holding an information day on Thursday, June 9, in the Kingsgate Centre. During the society’s MS Awareness Week, May 23 to 29, there will be an attempt to map every person with the disease in the UK to produce the first-ever register of sufferers. To contact the branch call 01484 842111 or check out