Blind chef, 51, who set himself on fire in the kitchen deemed ‘fit to work’

Russell Burton says his poor eyesight means he can no longer work as a professional chef. Picture: Russell Burton.
Russell Burton says his poor eyesight means he can no longer work as a professional chef. Picture: Russell Burton.
Have your say

Russell Burton was registered partially sighted earlier this year after burning himself with oil and setting his top alight.

Russell Burton says he feels he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The 51-year-old has worked as a professional chef for the last 25 years, but says his deteriorating eyesight means he is unable to carry on in that job.

He tried to hide his health problems from his bosses, but was “let go of” four times in 18 months after repeatedly missing orders and having several accidents in the kitchen.

The last time this happened, in January this year, Russell said he had to acknowledge that he had to leave behind the career he’s known and loved for all his life. Then, five months ago, his doctor approved him as registered partially sighted.

But he fears for his future because he’s been deemed “fit for work” by the Department of Work and Pensions so he cannot claim disability benefit.

He cannot apply for chef jobs and he lacks the skills and experience to be considered for other roles. He says after 10 months of signing on he’s had no help with retraining from the Government.

What’s more, he says he’s been switched back and forth between Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA, for people who have an illness or disability) six times this year – and each time his money is delayed, which is making him depressed and anxious.

Russell, who lives in Leeds and has a 22-year-old son, told i: “No-one will hire me as a chef anymore and I know myself I just can’t be in a kitchen anymore because I’m a health and safety risk to myself and to others. I tried to hide it for the last five years but I clearly can’t anymore.

Read more: Disabled Livingston war veteran battling cancer could lose home after DWP axe benefits

“I’m keen to find a new career but no-one gets back to me when I apply for jobs I’ve no experience in. The Job Centre has promised me help with retraining but I’ve had zero support so far.

“Each time they switch me between benefits I can be waiting a month of two for my money. They just tell me ‘go to a food bank’.”

Since birth, Russell’s left eye as been affected by amblyopia. Also known as lazy eye, the childhood condition means the vision doesn’t develop properly. It means that the child can see less clearly out of the affected eye and relies more on the “good” eye. This has caused blind spots and double vision for Russell.

Read more: Disabled Livingston war veteran battling cancer could lose home after DWP axe benefits

Then, five years ago, he suffered macular scarring is the right, his “good eye” – the amateur photographer was trying to capture the sun’s corona – which caused his central vision to go blurred and distorted.

He explains how his eyesight problems affected his work.

“I was missing tickets – in a restaurant a chef could get 120 tickets an hour and I was struggling to read them. There were times I cut myself chopping, you’re under pressure to work fast and that’s dangerous without good eyesight.

“One time I was holding a tea towel that caught fire and then the sleeves of my top went up. Other times I’d splashed myself with hot oil as I hadn’t seen there was any there in the pan.”

Russell, who lives with his partner Rachel and her two children, said the uncertainty and instability over his income has had an impact on his mental health.

“For months I became a recluse, I didn’t go out anywhere or see anyone,” he said.

He has also lost two stone over the last nine months, which he believes is due to a combination of stress and an undiagnosed stomach condition.

“The doctors thought I had an ulcer but that’s now been ruled out but they don’t know what’s causing my gastrointestinal problems. It doesn’t help that when I’ve been switched to contributions based JSA or ESA I’ve not been entitled to free prescriptions so I’ve not been able to afford to buy the medicines I need to help settle my stomach.”

Russell said he feels “extremely let down” by the state.

“There’s an awful mentality with Job Centre staff where they think it’s acceptable or normal to leave people for months without money and they just say ‘go to a food bank’ when you complain.

“Food banks should be an absolute last resort for people. The system is broken.”

This story originally appeared in the i news.

i has approached the Department for Work and Pensions for comment.

Read more: Employers now favour work experience and apprenticeships over degrees