Available until: 28th February 2021
When the Conservatives came into power and the world began to fall apart, they decided to restructure the benefit process. At that stage, people with disabilities were claiming a benefit called Disability Living Allowance. The Government planned to scrap this and replace it with something called Personal Independence Payment. Both benefits give financial support to people with physical and mental health problems and disabilities.
The aim was for the Department of Work and Pensions to get as many people as possible off benefits.
It worked quite well… for them. 54% of the people who were claiming DLA were not awarded PIP. Although a large percentage of the appeals were won, the experience was deeply distressing.
We Ask These Questions of Everybody (actually not true: they didn’t ask me all these questions) aims to highlight the distress, fear and confusion of applying for PIP. The two people who worked to create this opera, Amble Skuse and Toria Banks, both have a disability. The story is about a fictional character called Hannah, but the events are inspired by real life. Throughout the opera, Hannah converses with Lyn, her PIP assessor. Lyn is part of an organisation which is employed by the DWP in order to help them decide whether a person is sufficiently disabled to receive benefits. She asks Hannah questions and writes down her answers. They are then given to the DWP and someone who has never met Hannah makes the decision.
Hannah and Lyn sing their conversation, but in between their exchanges, we hear the voices of real people who have suffered the anxieties and impossibilities of applying for PIP. The voices explain how they feel and how they were made to feel. The sadness, fear and anger. The feeling of being persecuted. The feeling that people want those with disabilities not to exist anymore. The way their words were written down inaccurately by the assessor and twisted in order to prove what the DWP wanted them to prove. The personal, probing, irrelevant questions. The groundless judgements. The inability to see anyone as an individual; the attempts to put us into little boxes; the assumption that all of us show depression, anxiety, pain and disability in the same way.
The music is modern and attractive. Hannah sings sweetly and conveys a strong sense of vulnerability. Lyn shows calm and slightly detached sympathy. There aren’t really any songs which opera singers will be wanting to release on their albums of favourite arias, but I don’t feel the intention is that the music should be our main focus. It’s more about the libretto; the thoughts and ideas that are expressed through music. It feels as though the opera was written more to educate – and express physical and emotional pain – than to entertain.
There is nothing wrong with this at all. I think music, or indeed any art form, can be an extremely valuable way both of expressing something we already know in a new way and of introducing people to a new idea. Although the conversation between Hannah and Lyn is part of a real conversation, it can sometimes be easier for people to take in a new idea, particularly an emotionally challenging one, if it’s presented artistically. Fictionalising can have a distancing effect which can remove prejudices and allow sympathies to creep in where perhaps they wouldn’t in real life. We can often absorb facts through fiction and finds it changes our thought processes more easily than if we read something that challenges our beliefs more directly.
It is an incredible idea for an opera – or for any work at all – but I do wonder how accessible it is. It is essential that a work on such an important subject reaches as wide a range of people as possible and while opera is an incredible art form, it’s not a particularly popular one and even some seasoned operagoers struggle a bit with modern operas and their irregular tunes. This makes me wonder whether opera is the most effective way to tell this story. I have listened to a lot of opera and classical music so I can hear and appreciate the beautiful musical line in We Ask These Questions of Everybody, but a lot of people will be unable to do this due to lack of experience of opera (experience is so important in music – I have limited experience of rap and country music and that’s probably a large part of the reason why I don’t enjoy them).
The video displays the words in the opera, which is theoretically very helpful for me as I have a hearing impairment. I really struggled at English National Opera until they started using surtitles. But the video is disorientating and physically difficult to watch. The words appear one letter at a time as though they’re being typed, some accompanied by images of emails and text messages, some appearing on the screen. Behind these letters and images are what looks like pieces of paper with different colours and textures. These images sometimes move around, which actually aggravates some of the symptoms of my disabilities. It’s visually striking and clever, but I can’t help feeling that the message of this opera is so important, it needs to be as clear and easy to access as possible. With any opera, you don’t want people to give up on it and watch something else – and this opera aims to do so much more than entertain.
It’s very likely that any disappointment I’m feeling is at least partly due to the fact I feel my own voice was not represented; that many of the aspects of the PIP application and appeal that stood out to me were not included in this opera. This activates my paranoia and makes me wonder if I am really disabled.
But the fact I don’t relate to all of it is actually a strength of the work. One of the problems with the DWP assessment is that it assumes that we’re all the same and we all react in the same way to a particular trigger. If you wear make-up and look clean, you’re not depressed. If you’re not sweating, you’re not anxious. If you’re not showing signs of physical pain, you’re not in pain. If you’re not taking the strongest possible medication or being regularly seen by a specialist, you’re not that ill. It goes beyond the scope of this review to describe all the problems with these assumptions, but I think the fact I don’t relate to everything in this opera shows how different people with disabilities can be; that our problems are all different; that I do some things more easily than Hannah, but there are some things she does which I can’t do at all. Our triggers are different and so are our reactions and the way we present our reactions. That is one of the most important things the DWP needs to learn. Though I would say the most important thing for them to learn is that we are actually human beings. No; more than that. We are fragile human beings. That’s why we’re claiming.
There are people who would rather live in poverty than apply for PIP again. There are people who applied for PIP for physical health reasons and are now receiving mental health treatment because of their experience with the DWP. There are people who killed themselves.
This is not okay. And I can only hope and dream that everyone who watches We Ask These Questions of Everybody will understand that.