NEARLY 400 have signed a petition for Colchester’s benefits assessment centre to be made accessible by a wheelchair user who says having someone “manhandle” her into the building is “painful and humiliating”.

The ground floor centre at Wellington Street has a 5ins step to the entrance so for anyone unable to get over it, they must press the intercom and wait for help from staff.

Ali Wilkin, 48, has an autoimmune condition which causes chronic pain and fatigue so being lifted aggravates her condition.

Her poor health means she can only do one trip out for no longer than two hours and needs travel sickness tablets to tackle the five-minute bus journey into town.

Under the Equality Act, if a building cannot be made accessible, then a reasonable alternative must be provided.

But Ms Wilkin says neither the intercom system, or expecting people to travel to Chelmsford or Ipswich to a better suited building, is a reasonable option.

She said: “Long-term this isn’t just about Colchester, it’s about disabled people’s difficulties in accessing the benefits system.

“I’m part of a community who have been under attack by government policy for a long time.

“It’s been good centering our voice and that of my friends who I’m watching circling the drain towards death because of these issues.

“I want the Minister of State for Disabled People, MP Sarah Newton, and Will Quince to look at the Equality Act and see how it can be better, and make sure the people who are meant to be assessing us are doing their jobs within the law.”

This week the mum-of-two, from Colchester, was denied a work capability assessment which means she has not received benefits for about a month.

It took six months for the Department for Work and Pensions to offer her an alternative assessment appointment in Chelmsford, a trip Ms Wilkin says she is physically unable to make.

When she reiterated how ill she is, she received another offer for Colchester and was told she could use a different accessible route via the nearby Job Centre Plus building.

However, this offer was withdrawn within 24 hours and she was deemed fit enough to work.

Ms Wilkin is now financially dependent on her family and plans to appeal.

She said: “How much more of this do people need to take?

“The only conclusion I can come to is this is systemic and deliberate and I have no reason to trust the process right. I feel powerless.

“The government thinks it is pushing disabled people back to work but we’re too sick to work.

“This process makes us sicker. It doesn’t make us more employable.”

A DWP spokesman explained all of its Centres for Health and Disability Assessments comply with the Equality Act and where a centre is not directly accessible from street level, this is made clear before a person's appointment.

The authority has also promised it will ask the assessment provider to revisit what else can be done to make the building more accessible. 

A spokesperson said: “We’re absolutely committed to ensuring disabled people get the right support that they need.

"All our centres meet legal accessibility requirements, but we go further and can arrange to meet at more accessible sites nearby or discuss whether a home visit would be appropriate.”

Click here for the petition.