A couple of Sundays ago I was sat in front of my computer working away as usual, when it became painfully obvious that I’d lost my Internet connection. Not for the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Now being a bit of an obsessive nerd I began a thorough investigation and checked all the usual things, all to no avail. I eventually decided the problem was with my service provider and there was nothing I could do to fix things. As they don’t operate a support service on a Sunday I was left feeling powerless, frustrated and annoyed. As I sat in front of the uncooperative screen I pondered my feelings of annoyance and powerlessness. Can there be anything more stressful than the realisation that you can’t do anything to change things; that you have no control over what is going on?
As I considered the situation I remembered a time when I’d run stress workshops back in the nineteen eighties. One of the most common stressors expressed by many of the delegates was the feeling that they weren’t in control at work or couldn’t change things in their private lives.
My thinking moved on, what must it feel like to be a disabled person at the moment who is reliant on others or the state for their support over which they have little control? The UK’s conversation has focused on reductions in benefits, risings costs, cuts in health and social care, rising unemployment, insulting comments from the media and the entertainment industries, pressure to change the law on euthanasia and increases in disability hate crime. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness must be overwhelming, the sense of powerlessness the most frustrating and stressful thing of all.
In our stress workshops we used to suggest that, in order to reduce stress levels, we needed to identify something over which we had some control, and then take action. It doesn’t matter how big or small the action, just get on and do it!
With this in mind it has been tremendously encouraging to notice the increasing numbers of disabled people ‘taking action’ by voicing their concerns using the Internet and social networks. An example is the recently published Responsible Reform Report (popularly known as Spartacus) written and produced by disabled people, which created enormous interest on Twitter and Facebook. The Report dismantled DWP research, and many of the arguments used to persuade MP’s to vote for the proposed welfare reform. The government lost a number of votes in the Lords and will need to think again. Such was the interest that the Report’s disabled authors appeared on several national television programmes, including Newsnight, as well as stimulating further debates in the House of Commons and elsewhere.
We are undoubtedly now seeing, often disenfranchised, disabled people developing an organised intelligent Internet campaign strategy which not only gives voice to their concerns but also demonstrates that there are things they can do to take action against perceived unfairness.
So back to my Internet connection problem, I decided to reduce my stress levels by taking control. I turned the wretched thing off and began reading a book that I’d been meaning to read for ages. The next day everything was working just fine.
Have a stress free week and I hope what follows is of interest.
Disabled people ‘getting sharp end of the government’s stick’
It is “entirely obvious” that the government’s welfare cuts are “falling entirely” on disabled people and families with children, according to a leading academic.
Professor Paul Gregg, an economic and social policy expert at the University of Bath, told a TUC seminar on the government’s cuts and reforms that disabled people were “very much getting the sharp end of the stick”.
Professor Gregg also dismissed government claims that welfare spending had spiralled out of control, and said that – prior to the recession – it had been growing at its slowest rate since the Second World War.
Professor Gregg, who conducted a review of personalised support and conditionality in the welfare system for the Department for Work and Pensions in 2009, helped design employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – but has since been highly critical of the work capability assessment, the test used to determine eligibility for ESA.
He said he believed the coalition’s reforms were “entirely driven by cuts”, rather than by the intention to help people into work.
He said there should be no compulsion for disabled people to take or look for work and that instead they needed to be “supported, brought along”, while efforts to encourage them back into work should be “an entirely voluntary process”.
He told the seminar that the government’s welfare reforms were “making it substantially harder to build that positive agenda for trying to help people back to work”.
Professor Gregg also said it was “completely unacceptable” that the government was making no effort to track the progress of disabled people who had been found “fit for work” through the WCA, but would have been on incapacity benefit under the old system.
Disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin, one of the authors of this month’s Responsible Reform report on how the government responded to its disability living allowance consultation, said disabled people were seeing a “perfect storm that threatens to undo all the progress of the last 40 years”.
She pointed to cuts to social care support at the same time as the reforms and cuts to benefits, increased disability hate crime and continuing calls for legalised euthanasia, while efforts to push disabled people into full-time employment were becoming “more and more punitive”.
She said: “If we continue down that road, although it sounds like hyperbole, we can expect to see many more deaths linked to these cuts because disabled and sick people will simply say they have no alternative and feel that life is simply not worth living.”
Government adviser ‘failed to declare work for insurance giant’
A senior government adviser has failed to declare freelance work carried out for the insurance giant set to make huge financial gains through the coalition’s incapacity benefit (IB) reforms, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
The adviser failed to declare the work carried out for the insurance company Unum in the register of interests, DNS understands.
The advice given to the government is believed to have included extensive discussions around welfare reform, at a time when the hugely controversial welfare reform bill has been passing through parliament.
Unum has admitted widespread criticisms of its past actions in the US – mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people.
There is no suggestion that the adviser acted improperly on behalf of Unum, but the failure to register the potential conflict of interest over work for such a controversial company will be a huge embarrassment to the government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
A DWP civil servant confirmed to DNS through a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request that the adviser was required as a public appointee to declare any conflicts of interest and that “none have been declared”.
Disabled activists have increasingly been raising concerns about the influence of Unum within the DWP and among MPs and peers.
They are worried about the impact this might have had on the controversial reforms of both coalition and Labour governments, including the introduction of the much-criticised “fitness for work” test, the work capability assessment (WCA).
Following the receipt of some limited information following the FoI request, DNS submitted a series of questions to the adviser, including whether they had worked for Unum or Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out the WCAs on behalf of the DWP.
In a statement sent by text message, the adviser said: “I am afraid that I am not able to give you any more information… than you have already received in the response to your FoI request.”
They added: “However, in a personal capacity I can assure you I have never worked for Atos.
“Again, in a personal capacity I am most concerned about both the form and the quality of the WCA assessment and would be most interested in the results of your researches. I am sorry not to be able to be of more assistance.”
They failed to respond to a text message which asked them to clarify whether they had worked for Unum.
A government official – in response to an FoI request by DNS – said that public appointees in similar roles were “required to declare an interest in companies that could cause a conflict of interest with their… role”, and that the adviser had “not declared an interest in Unum”.
DNS understands that the adviser has carried out freelance work for Unum on at least one occasion since their public appointment.
DWP’s press office has failed to answer any questions about the adviser and the Unum links since first being approached more than a week ago by DNS. The FoI was submitted by DNS on 2 December 2011.
John Letizia, Unum’s head of public affairs, said it was for the adviser to answer any questions about their appointment “and not for Unum to comment”.
Letizia refused to confirm whether the adviser had worked on a freelance basis for Unum.
DNS revealed evidence last year that strongly suggested that Unum has attempted to influence incapacity benefit reform, particularly under the Labour government.
Unum has denied doing so and that it stands to gain from the reforms, even though it launched a major media campaign last year just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through the new, stricter test, the WCA.
Government admits failing to analyse results of DLA consultation
The government has admitted failing to carry out any statistical analysis of the results of its controversial disability living allowance (DLA) consultation.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was accused earlier this month of misleading parliament and the public about the scale of opposition to the government’s DLA reforms.
In Responsible Reform otherwise known as the Spartacus Report – disabled activists had analysed the 523 responses to the DLA consultation that were submitted by disabled people’s organisations, disability charities and other groups.
Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, reacted to the report by stating that these group responses only made up 10 per cent of replies to the consultation, and ignored nearly 5,000 individual responses.
In a letter to peers, Lord Freud claimed: “All consultation responses, over 5,000 individual submissions, have been thoroughly and appropriately considered in the government’s analysis and have been used to inform the design of the new benefit and supporting processes.”
But when Disability News Service (DNS) asked DWP how these 5,000 respondents replied to the questions discussed and analysed in Responsible Reform, a DWP spokesman said that “not all respondents chose to answer the specific questions asked”.
When asked how those who had answered the questions responded, the spokesman said: “We don’t have those figures, I’m afraid.”
And when asked why those figures were not available, he said: “If you look at the questions asked they were what/how type questions and were analysed thematically and not statistically.”
But several of the consultation questions asked by the government required simple yes or no answers, such as: will having two rates per component make the benefit easier to understand and administer, while ensuring appropriate levels of support?
Another yes/no question was: should the assessment of a disabled person’s ability take into account any aids and adaptations they use?
But DWP claims it failed to carry out any basic statistical analysis of these and other answers.
Sue Marsh, one of the authors of Responsible Reform, said DWP’s admission cast even further doubt on its DLA consultation.
She said: “Lord Freud was very clear that they had analysed all of these responses and if he can’t back up his claims you have to question his response.”
Marsh said she was frustrated that the government had refused to engage with any of the key issues raised by the Spartacus report.
DNS revealed last week that disabled people’s organisations were becoming increasingly angry at the government’s failure to listen to their views on issues such as DLA reform, despite its frequent references to how it is “co-producing” its reforms with disabled people.
And the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg is to examine the government’s failure to respond to the Responsible Reform report in an inquiry being carried out by the work and pensions select committee, which she chairs.
Slight improvement in Access to Work figures
The government has welcomed new figures which show a slight rise in the number of disabled people granted funds to make their workplaces more accessible.
The increase in “new customers helped” through the Access to Work (AtW) scheme comes after the number of people receiving support plummeted during the coalition’s first year.
The figures show the number of new customers helped rose from 2,320 in the first quarter of 2011/12 to 2,660 in the second quarter.
Despite the modest rise, the first half of 2011-12 still saw a sharp drop in new customers helped compared with the same period in 2010-11, from about 7,700 to about 5,000.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “We are pleased with the rise in figures, but would like to encourage more people to sign up to Access to Work.”
But she declined to say why the government thought the number of new AtW customers helped might have started to rise.
The figures follow a string of concerns that have been raised about the government’s commitment to the scheme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support at work – since it came to power.
In August last year, Disability News Service revealed that disabled people receiving AtW were being sent “hostile” and “threatening” letters by DWP, giving them just a week to confirm they still needed their funding before it was withdrawn.
Last June, Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, published a review of employment support for the government and focused strongly on the need to expand and improve AtW.
But the government’s response to her review made several references to concerns that her AtW recommendations could put “additional pressure on funding at a time when resources are limited”.
And in 2010, the government backtracked on a high-profile pledge to allow disabled people to secure AtW funding before they applied for a job.
The coalition also quietly introduced new rules which mean employers or disabled employees themselves now have to fund equipment such as basic versions of voice-activated software, most adapted chairs, and satellite navigation devices, rather than having them funded through AtW.
For information on AtW, visit the government’s Directgov website.
Budget airline faces legal action over website access
A disability charity has begun legal action against a budget airline over its failure to make its website accessible to blind and partially-sighted customers.
RNIB says bmibaby has failed to take action to ensure that customers who use screen-readers or cannot use a mouse can book flights on its website, despite being alerted to problems in 2010.
RNIB is acting on behalf of two bmibaby customers who say they have been unable to book online since changes were made to the website in 2010.
They claim the company is breaching the Equality Act by failing to make the site accessible to them, forcing them to use an expensive call centre instead.
One of them, Alexandra, from Loughborough, said: “I didn’t want to use the call centre as costs can mount up and I wanted the freedom to compare flights and prices before making a decision.
“I feel that it is robbing visually-impaired people of the freedom to choose how they make bookings. It makes me feel like the disabled community is not seen as a lucrative market and that we are clearly not valued as potential or returning customers.”
The other customer, Iain, who chairs a Scottish charity, said he needs to be able to search for information and book flights to attend frequent meetings in England.
He added: “It is very frustrating that the website remains inaccessible when these issues have been flagged up since 2010.”
RNIB has provided bmibaby with expert advice, recommendations and an audit report, but claims the company is “still to make any significant progress”.
The charity said it has now begun legal proceedings against bmibaby.
Hugh Huddy, RNIB’s campaigns officer for inclusive society, said: “Blind and partially-sighted customers deserve to have access to the best online prices and flight information, just as any customer of bmibaby does.
“Why should those with sight loss risk missing out on a web-only deal or be forced to ring a call centre simply because companies are failing to take accessibility standards seriously?”
A bmibaby spokeswoman said: “We commissioned a report from RNIB and received the results of the audit in November 2011 in which they detailed what we needed to do on our website.
“We are currently working through the proposals and investigating several solutions. Whilst we are going through this process we have a new local rate telephone number for blind and partially-sighted people to call to speak to our call centre to obtain our discounted website fares.
“We have also added an accessibility page to bmibaby.com in order to keep customers up to date with our progress.
“We have a project team in place to action the recommendations and we would like to thank our customers for their patience whilst these changes are being implemented.”
Alarm after council scraps direct payments support service
Disabled activists are warning that local authorities could try to copy a council that has withdrawn funding from a direct payments support service.
Even though government guidance encourages councils to provide an independent advice and information service for users of direct payments, Hampshire County Council has stopped funding the service that had been provided by Southampton Centre for Independent Living (SCIL).
From the beginning of this month, users of direct payments in Hampshire who need support to manage their direct payments or personal budgets have had to ask social services for extra funding, and then use that money to buy the support themselves.
The funding stopped only three weeks ago, but SCIL is already receiving calls from disabled people in Hampshire who are being given incomplete or incorrect advice by their care managers.
Problems they could face include disciplinary, redundancy and other legal issues with their PAs. Direct payments experts say such advice can prevent disabled people being taken to employment tribunals by their PAs.
SCIL had to make 10 employees – about half of its staff – redundant when Hampshire withdrew funding, although it still provides a similar service in Southampton.
But SCIL fears that other local authorities could follow Hampshire’s example.
Robert Droy, SCIL’s independent living team manager, said: “What it means is that we are no longer funded to help people to live independently and that is everything the government keep saying they want.
“It just feels kind of contradictory. If anything, more people are going to need help in the future, not less.
“We just worry that other local authorities will look at it and think, ‘Hampshire have got away with it. Maybe we can get away with it.’”
Hampshire has pledged to provide funding to disabled people for advice and support if and when they need it, but Droy said: “You don’t necessarily want to spend a month getting funding to get the help you need to sort it out.”
He said he believed Hampshire’s move was a cost-cutting measure.
A Hampshire County Council spokeswoman said they had decided to “re-evaluate” the way they delivered services as a result of the move towards greater personalisation of care and support.
She denied the move was a cost-cutting measure, and said: “Existing contracts for direct payments support finished at the end of last year and [were] replaced with a system which allows the individual to choose what support they need from the organisation which best suits them.
“The aim of this change is to provide a fair and consistent service which will reflect the level of need required, providing people with greater choice, control and flexibility over which provider they purchase their direct payments support service from.”
But she admitted SCIL had passed on concerns about inaccurate advice being given by care managers, which she said the council would “investigate fully”.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “It is for councils to provide information, advice and support services to enable people to make informed choices about the type of services they wish to receive.
“Adult social care is a locally delivered system, and local authorities are accountable to their local populations for the decisions they make.
“While some may be cutting services, others are working innovatively to provide high quality services at lower cost.”
Ofcom criticised after clearing Channel 4 over Gervais hate routine
The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has come under attack again after ruling that an offensive, disablist routine by comedian Ricky Gervais did not breach its broadcasting code.
Channel 4, which broadcast Gervais’s stand-up show Science last October, has refused to apologise despite the comedian repeatedly describing the singer Susan Boyle as looking like “a mong”, a highly offensive term for people with Down’s syndrome.
In his routine, Gervais said: “…I don’t think she’d be where she was today if it wasn’t for the fact that she looked like such a fucking mong.”
He went on to say that there was “no better word to describe Susan Boyle” – who herself has a learning difficulty – but claimed the word was no longer used to describe someone with Down’s syndrome.
Channel 4 claimed the use of the word was justified in the context of a stand-up routine, and that Gervais’s humour “was rooted in the explanation of how language evolves”, while he had not intended to cause offence, and any “offence inherent in a joke of this nature was reduced by the programme’s late night scheduling”.
Ofcom ruled that although “several aspects of this content had the potential to cause considerable offence”, it “was justified by the context of this provocative comedy routine challenging the evolution of words” in a late-night broadcast.
But Michael White, drummer with the band Heavy Load, who has Down’s syndrome, said it was “a disgraceful word to use”.
He said: “It makes me upset, seeing other people not happy. If they can’t say something nice about disabled people they should go away. I don’t want to know them, go home.”
White, who said he was called a “mong” himself when he was younger, criticised Ofcom for ruling in Channel 4’s favour. He also said Channel 4 should have apologised over the incident.
Last year, his band produced their own version of the Ting Tings hit That’s Not My Name, with a video featuring disabled stars Mat Fraser and Pete Bennett, to protest at disablist hate language, including the use of words such as “mong” and “mental”.
The song is included on their latest album, Wham, which also features Walk Like Vinnie Jones, a song mocking the actor’s use of the word “retard” on Celebrity Big Brother.
Anne Novis, a leading disabled hate crime campaigner and a member of the Ministry of Justice’s hate crime advisory group, said she believed broadcasters that continued to allow the use of “abusive language and jokes to belittle disabled people” could be breaching their legal duties under the Equality Act.
She said: “The words we use to describe people can be hurtful, abusive and encourage others to view disabled people negatively.
“This then can lead to harassment and hostility as people feel justified in their attitudes by the way some media and broadcasters portray us.”
It is just the latest in a series of incidents in which Channel 4 has been criticised by disabled activists over the use of disablist language in its publicity material and by its presenters and stars.
The criticisms of Channel 4 are particularly sensitive as it will be the host broadcaster for the London 2012 Paralympics later this year.
A Channel 4 spokesman refused to apologise for allowing Gervais’s comments to be screened.
He said the channel had decided that to cut the comments out of the programme would have amounted to “censoring a stand-up performance”.
He added: “The editorial judgement we made was that that particular routine appeared in the context of a routine about the use of language. That is why we thought it was editorially justified to keep it in.”
An OFCOM spokesman said: “We do look at it on a case-by-case basis. If it were to happen again and the circumstances were different, it is not to say we wouldn’t make a different decision.”
On the same day as the Gervais ruling, Ofcom also cleared ITV of breaching the code after presenter Eamonn Holmes called one of his guests on This Morning “retarded”.
Ofcom said that although the word was capable of causing offence, it had been used unscripted in a live broadcast and Holmes had apologised on-air shortly afterwards, so it considered the case to be “resolved”.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com