The sprint wheelchair athlete says new PIP disability benefit cuts that have removed her eligibility for a car may scupper her chances of qualifying for the GB team in Rio

Carly Tait, a sprint wheelchair racer, is four months away from trials to represent Great Britain at this summer’s Paralympics in Rio – but she now finds herself at the sharp end of the government’s controversial cuts to disability benefits. The 30-year-old from Wythenshawe, south Manchester, who has cerebral palsy, received a lifetime award of disability living allowance (DLA) when she was 18 and for the last 12 years has used part of the benefit to lease an accessible car.

Tait describes the car as her “lifeline”. She says it has allowed her to attend university, have a job, get to two training sessions a day in Stockport, about 10 miles from home, and compete in track events around the country. But after being assessed in February for personal independence payments (PIP) – the government’s “points-based” benefit introduced to replace DLA – Tait has been told she will lose her car, which is provided by the Motability charity scheme.

Under the new rules, to be eligible for the Motability scheme, a disabled person needs to score 12 assessment points. Tait scored 10. “I had training half an hour after I opened the letter [from the Department for Work and Pensions],” she recalls. “I spent the entire time crying as I went round the track. My coach rushed over asking what’s wrong. There I was sobbing, ‘I’ve lost my car. They’re taking my car.’”

What is happening to Tait is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the government’s much-publicised climbdown over one PIP cut to disability aids in the home, there is still wide-scale reassessment going on, which is seeing disabled people losing their cars. Since 2013, more than 17,000 disabled people have had their mobility cars, powered wheelchairs, or scooters taken away after being reassessed, according to Motability. By 2018, the DWP will have retested some two million disabled people and it is predicted that 90,000 motability vehicles will be repossessed.

Tait says when she was called for her PIP interview she was sure she would still qualify for her car. “[I thought,] I’m going to my assessment in a wheelchair. What more evidence do they need?” But within a few minutes of the test, Tait says she began to feel the examiner wasn’t there to support her but rather “to catch me out”. This only increased, she says, when she told him she was training for the Paralympics. “He alluded to the fact someone like me – who can go wheelchair racing – shouldn’t get the same support as someone who can’t … It was like ‘you can do sport, you don’t need help,’” she recalls.

As well as limited sight and hearing, Tait’s disability affects both her legs severely – she uses a wheelchair and crutches – and leaves her with coordination problems. Despite this, she was judged as being able to walk more than 20m – a highly controversial but key factor used to judge whether a disabled person is awarded the enhanced mobility rate of PIP to qualify for a vehicle.

“Even things like rain and wind upset me. I fell over last summer and broke my foot because I tripped on the pavement. I had to crawl to the bathroom,” says Tait. “It’s almost as if they think if you can walk in your own house, you don’t need a car.”

Tait’s case highlights whether there is any sense in reassessing people with unchangeable or incurable conditions, such as hers. The justification by former work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was that around 70% of people who got a lifetime award were “just allowed to fester”. People on lifetime awards began to be assessed for PIP from July. Over the next two years, waves of severely disabled people who had previously been told their DLA was for life could see their awards reduced or removed entirely.

“When I asked the assessor why I had to be tested again, he said ‘there might be medical advances’,” says Tait. “There’s no cure for cerebral palsy. I’m never going to get any better. I’ve been on a lifetime award since I was a teenager. And now someone who’s never met me before can take that away.”

Tait says the London Paralympics inspired her to take up wheelchair racing. “Until I watched the 2012 Paralympics I didn’t even know people with cerebral palsy could do sport, let alone be successful at it. Since then I’ve dedicated my life to being on the start line in Rio.”

In 2014, Tait represented Great Britain in the T34 wheelchair sprint at the Diamond League in Hampden Park, Glasgow and at the IPC Grand Prix Final in Birmingham, alongside Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft. She took part in last year’s Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games at the Olympic Park in Stratford and this year, she has taken a 12-month sabbatical from work – as a digital marketer for the Co-op – to train for Paralympic qualification.

In December, Tait ordered a new car from Motability, specifically for her training needs. In addition to being suitable for her poor coordination, her racing wheelchair is 6ft long – it won’t fit in a manual car with the gearstick in the way – the car also had to have room for her everyday wheelchair. As she waited for her new car to be made, Tait had been using a hire car from Motability (her previous car was damaged in an accident). A few hours before she opened the DWP letter informing her she had lost her eligibility, the garage called to say her new car was ready. “It’s sat in the garage now, waiting for me,” she says.

Tait’s eligibility officially ends next week, but Motability have given her a three-week extension for her hire car to 3 May “as an act of goodwill”. Tait is appealing against the DWP decision. If successful, Motability has told her that she would have to reorder her new car, which could be another three or four months. To buy, her car would cost £29,500. “I can’t afford it without my benefits, not even to lease,” she says.

On 24 April, competition season begins and, in addition to regular training, Tait needs to get to Stoke Mandeville and Coventry to compete. She says she has no idea how she will.

“This is Rio year,” she says. “This whole year has been about getting myself into a medal position. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. They made all this effort in London 2012 to showcase disability. But now the government is making us housebound.”

A DWP spokeswoman says: “Decisions on eligibility for PIP are made after consideration of all the evidence, including an assessment and information provided by the claimant and their GP. The majority of people leaving the Motability scheme will be eligible for a one-off payment of £2,000 [from Motability], which will help ensure their mobility needs continue to be met.”

Motability says it has already paid out £20m in transitional support and research shows it has helped customers to remain mobile without their Motability car, in many cases by purchasing a used car. This isn’t an option for Tait. She says: “I’m representing a country called ‘Great’. It’s not that great [for disabled people], is it? People need to know this is happening.”

Curriculum vitae
Age 30.

Lives Wythenshawe, Manchester.

Family Cohabiting.

Education Ashton-on-Mersey high school; South Trafford College; University of Central Lancashire, BA (Hons) marketing communications and advertising.

Career 2015-present: digital campaign assistant, Co-op Food; 2011-13: senior digital marketing executive, Bupa UK; 2008-11: marketing executive, Findel Education Ltd; 2007-08: account executive, Marlin Design Ltd.

Public life T34 sprint wheelchair racer.

Interests Seeing friends, vintage markets and design, theatre.