So the holiday is over and it’s back to some kind of reality. Piles of post, mostly junk, plenty of emails despite my EA’s best efforts. Lots of magazines to read, bills to pay and all sorts of other domestic trivia. One bright moment was discovering that our Olympic and Paralympics tickets had arrived. Now that the Olympics have become a reality in our house I’m having to focus on how we are going to get to all the venues using public transport. Like many other disabled people I’m hearing very positve messages about Olympic venues and transport accessibility but sadly experience has turned me into a bit of a cynic.
Last week I went to Paris with disabled collegues using Eurostar. The journey out was seamless, my train to St Pancras was on time as was the Eurostar to Paris and the accessible taxi was waiting at Gare du Nord. Coming back started well, accessible taxi arrived and after a hair raising drive round the Arc de Triomphe we arrived at the station. Crowds, queues, Gauloise, baguettes and confusion but we eventually got to the check in desk where we were politely informed that we couldn’t board our scheduled train as there wasn’t enough time to position the mechanical wheelchair ramps. No amount of discussion shifted the official’s position. We arrived back an hour late, luckily we didn’t have any appointments so the delay wasn’t critical. This will be a far more serious issue if similar problems arise at the Olympics. When I’ve finished this blog I’m going to drop Usain Bolt a note asking him to delay the 100 metres final just in case I’m late!
Government has ‘built a nuclear power station on a fault-line’, suggests disabled peer
A disabled peer has told a minister that her government’s failure to assess the impact of its policies on disabled people was like building a nuclear power station on a fault-line and then waiting for an earthquake.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, why the government had still not carried out an assessment of the “cumulative” impact of its policies on disabled people.
Three months ago, a report on disabled people’s right to independent living, by the joint committee on human rights – in which Baroness Campbell played a major part – called on the government to produce an assessment of the cumulative impact of its reforms on disabled people.
The crossbench peer was appearing in the Lords for the first time in six months, following serious health problems, and was co-chairing a meeting in which Miller answered questions about progress on her delayed disability strategy.
Baroness Campbell told the meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group – and other disability-related groups: “I left [six months ago] saying ‘impact assessments, impact assessments, impact assessments’. I am interested in where is the analysis of the cumulative effect of these changes.”
She added: “For me, it is like building a nuclear power station on a fault-line without thinking about what would happen if there was an earthquake.”
She said she had relatives who worked in aviation and shipping, industries which would “make sure people can fly without danger and sail without danger” before allowing a plane or boat to be built.
Miller admitted that her last conversation with Baroness Campbell six months previously had been about the need for a cumulative impact assessment, and said that her “words continue to ring in my ears”.
But she claimed that a number of disability-related policies were still “under development”.
And Miller appeared to blame the failure to carry out such an assessment on the need for “co-producing” policies, or consulting with disabled people and their organisations.
She said: “Because we are committed to co-production… it makes it very difficult to do cumulative impacts on policies that have not yet been finalised.
“They haven’t invented something where I can do an impact assessment when I haven’t finalised all the parts within it.”
Teather defends pledge to ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’
A Liberal Democrat minister has defended the coalition’s controversial commitment to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
Sarah Teather, the children and families minister, was speaking to Disability News Service about her plans for reforming the special educational needs (SEN) system.
Teather claimed that the coalition’s pledge to “remove the bias” was about “parental choice”, giving parents with disabled children the legal right to name the state-funded school they want their child to attend, whether it is a special or a mainstream school, or a free school or academy.
Disabled activists and allies in the inclusive education movement have repeatedly warned that the coalition’s pledge and SEN policies will lead to a new generation of special schools.
They believe the government’s reforms will make it harder for parents to secure a mainstream education for their disabled children and destroy years of progress towards a more inclusive system.
Asked if she would fulfil the “bias” pledge – made in the coalition’s “programme for government” in May 2010 – Teather said there had been “lots of parents who felt that they wanted their child to go to a special school and they thought their child was forced to go to mainstream and then having gone to mainstream they thought they weren’t getting the right kind of support”.
She also insisted that creating more academies and free schools would not make it harder for disabled children to access mainstream schools.
She said there would be a legal right for parents to name any state-funded school – including academies and free schools – that they want their disabled child to attend, and added: “That is a guarantee in the legal duty that you can name any school so you have a right to go there.
“We have given that commitment in the green paper and we intend to follow that through.”
She also spoke about the move to replace SEN statements with a single assessment process that will lead to a new education, health and care plan for disabled children from birth to the age of 25, with an option to have that plan delivered through a personal budget.
Asked about the fear that the new system could lead to the rationing of support for disabled children, in the same way that council cuts have made it harder for disabled adults to secure social care, she said it would keep all the current statutory duties under the system of SEN statements but would “extend them up the age range”.
She said that disabled children’s rights to support under the new system “should be stronger and not weaker”.
Teather had been speaking at an event in central London organised by the deafblind charity Sense, and attended by Princess Anne, the charity’s patron.
Sense was launching a new report, Supporting Success, which highlights how local authorities in England have failed to identify as many as 3,000 of the country’s estimated 4,000 deafblind children, and so are not providing them with the specialist support they need.
The report calls on the government to ensure that early identification of deafblind children is “at the very heart” of its reforms.
Among other recommendations, the report calls for a “truly joined up approach to supporting disabled children across education, health and social care agencies”.
Gillian Morbey, chief executive of Sense, said: “Early identification is critical. Unless the children are identified, we can’t support them.”
She said the charity was “always” concerned about the potential rationing of support, and added: “The idea of parents having that power and choice [through a personal budget] is brilliant, but it is only brilliant if it is real choice and real money.”
John Dickinson-Lilley, Sense’s deputy head of public policy, said there were also real concerns about the move towards more academies and free schools causing a “fragmentation” in the provision of support services for deafblind and other disabled children.
He dismissed the coalition’s claim that there was a “bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
He said: “We do not believe there is a bias towards inclusion because parents tell us that they struggle to get their children into a mainstream school.”
Councils behaving like ostriches over social care cuts.
Local authorities have been accused of “burying their heads in the sand” over cuts to adult social care, after admitting that spending will fall by nearly £900 million this year.
A new report by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) claims that over 85 per cent of the reduction will be due to “service re-design and efficiency”.
But another £77 million of savings will come through increased care charges paid by disabled and older people, and a further £113 million through councils cutting services.
The ADASS report shows that the total £890 million reduction in the adult social care budget for 2012-13 follows the £1 billion that was lost last year.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said the figures revealed the “stark reality for disabled people, carers and older people losing out on the frontline of austerity Britain”, with disabled and older people failing to receive the support they need to retain their dignity and independence.
DR UK said the “massive drop” in spending was coming despite rising demand for support, and warned that underfunding of essential care would only lead to longer-term costs for local authorities and the NHS.
Research suggests that charging fees for basic support leads to disabled people withdrawing from services, with the long-term costs of their care tripling when they later require much higher levels of support.
Sue Bott, DR UK’s director of development, said: “The ‘ostrich’ approach of councils, enforced by cuts from central government, of burying heads in the sand affects us all.
“Care matters to everyone and we need the most effective and efficient system, able to ensure needs are met and not ignored until the costs have tripled.”
Bott said the government must “act now to ensure adequate provision of social care and support for disabled people across the country”.
The survey also found that since last year, another six councils had tightened their eligibility criteria from “moderate” to “substantial”, making a total now of 83 per cent of councils, while three local authorities provide services only to those with “critical” needs.
Sarah Pickup, president of ADASS, said some councils had been forced to cut services to balance their budgets, although local authorities “continue to strive to protect front line services through re-designing services to focus on prevention and recovery and reducing ongoing costs, and by reviewing processes, services and contracts to ensure value for money”.
She said that it “could not be clearer that there is a desperate need for politicians from all parties quickly to find an answer to how we, as a nation, are going to adequately fund social care services in the future”.
A Department of Health (DH) spokesman said: “In 2010 the government recognised the pressure on the social care system and prioritised it by investing £7.2bn up to 2015.
“But we were clear that the money should not be used for business as usual – we challenged councils to increase productivity and spend the money more wisely.”
None of the new funding was ring-fenced, and it was announced in 2010 as chancellor George Osborne revealed cuts in total government funding of local councils of 26 per cent over the following four years.
The DH spokesman said: “The headline figure in this survey is not a cut. In fact it shows that councils are working hard to spend money in smarter ways to deliver care and support, and this year, they have got even better at doing that.”
He said the government’s long-awaited adult social care white paper would be published “quite soon but not in the next week or two”.
Transport for London admits step-free budget will plunge to zero
London transport bosses have finally admitted that they plan to invest nothing in projects aimed solely at improving step-free access to the capital’s tube network over the next three years.
Last week, Transport for London (TfL) was unable to explain why a document on its website showed investment in step-free access plunging from £47 million to zero in just four years.
TfL has now accepted that the figures are correct, but has blamed the fall on funding pressures dating back to 2009.
A TfL spokesman said these pressures “led to the deferral of a number of step-free schemes so that money could be used to preserve… vital line upgrades, which will result in a 30 per cent capacity increase on the tube for all Londoners, and accessibility improvements at the highest priority stations.”
The spokesman said that continuing work to improve step-free access – worth “tens of millions of pounds” – would continue to take place as part of larger station upgrade projects.
But he confirmed that funding solely for step-free access work would drop to zero next year.
A total of just 65 of 270 tube stations are step-free from street to platform, with another station to be added this summer, and another seven by 2018 through the station upgrade programme and the Crossrail project.
Transport for All (TfA), which campaigns for accessible transport in London and uncovered the TfL business plan which contained the figures, said: “76 per cent of tube stations remain totally unuseable to wheelchair-users, and other disabled people, because of a lack of lifts.
“London is a world city, yet the lack of a ring-fenced budget for step-free access means that disabled people are denied a fundamental freedom: to travel as equal citizens.”
The business plan outlines how much TfL will be investing across London Underground until 2017-18.
The “step-free access” section shows that investment in 2009-10 was about £47 million, before falling to about £33 million in 2010-11, about £28 million in 2011-12 and about £23 million this year, but will plunge to zero for the next three years.
Even in 2016-17, there will only be about £4 million investment in step-free access, and less than £10 million in 2017-18.
TfL said it had invested “hundreds of millions of pounds in making the transport network more accessible in the last few years, with improvements such as new lifts, trains, platform humps, wide aisle gates, tactile paving and audio and visual displays”, while its bus fleet was “the most accessible in the world”.
He said that “nearly 40 per cent of all stops and stations across London’s rail-based public transport network [which includes rail, tube and trams] are currently step-free”.
Meanwhile, TfL has announced new measures to improve access for disabled visitors to this summer’s London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
A series of short online films will help disabled people unfamiliar with London’s public transport system use TfL’s ticketing and journey-planning systems, buses, the tube, Docklands Light Railway and taxis.
TfL’s journey planner has been upgraded to make it easier to plan step-free travel online.
And TfL has also announced that 16 key London 2012 tube stations that have a gap between the train and platform – including Earl’s Court, King’s Cross, Oxford Circus, Southfields, Stratford, West Ham, Westminster and Wimbledon – will provide temporary manual boarding ramps for wheelchair-users.
When requested, staff at the departure tube station will call ahead to the destination to ensure that a ramp and member of staff will be waiting for them.
Activist’s death highlights ‘cruelty’ of ‘fitness for work’ rules
Anti-cuts campaigners have paid tribute to a disabled activist who died last week after fighting for two years against the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.
Karen Sherlock died on 8 June, just a fortnight after she was told that she would be eligible once again to receive out-of-work disability benefits.
Campaigners say her death is further evidence that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) is unfit for purpose and is causing thousands of disabled people anxiety and hardship, is exacerbating their ill-health and even contributing to some deaths.
Sherlock had several long-term health conditions, including diabetes and a heart condition, was about to start dialysis and was awaiting a kidney transplant, and experienced regular pain, exhaustion, vomiting and incontinence.
In a blog written in April, she described how her employment and support allowance (ESA) had been stopped, and accused the government of “stripping the most vulnerable of the essential benefits they need”.
She added: “Just throw them on the scrapheap. Don’t worry if they can’t feed themselves or heat their homes, or pay for taxis to take them places because they cannot walk anywhere. No, that doesn’t matter, they are leeches on society.”
Sherlock had been forced out of her NHS job in 2008 because of serious ill-health, and although she was found eligible for ESA – the replacement for incapacity benefit – she was placed in the work-related activity group, for those expected eventually to return to employment.
She was one of the tens of thousands of disabled people whose contributory form of ESA was stopped from 30 April this year, because of the new one-year time-limit introduced under the coalition’s Welfare Reform Act.
She only found out days before she died that her latest appeal had successfully placed her in the support group for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity, and therefore would no longer be affected by the time-limit.
The disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin has pieced together Sherlock’s experiences from emails and blogs she posted between October 2010 and May 2012.
She wrote in a blog that Sherlock had been filled with “confusion, fear and anxiety” because of the assessments, appeals and administrative foul-ups she was put through, and that she felt “caught up in the mill, frustrated, angry and insignificant”.
In a blog on the New Statesman website, fellow disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a friend of Sherlock’s, said she had “battled just to survive” and faced “endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms”.
Marsh has focused her campaigning efforts on the government’s new one-year time limit, which she describes as “an emblem of cruelty that really did cross the line of decency”.
She said Sherlock had been “terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.”
Asked whether Sherlock’s death demonstrated that too many ill and disabled people were being forced through a continuing cycle of assessments and appeals when clearly not fit for work, a spokesman for Chris Grayling, the Conservative minister for employment, said: “I really don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on an individual case like this.”
‘Straw Wars’ campaign angers disabled drinkers
A campaign to stop bars and restaurants using plastic straws could cause huge problems for disabled people who struggle to lift mugs and glasses, according to an access consultant and activist.
Myoo says billions of non-biodegradable straws are discarded every year, ending up in landfill or the sea and potentially in the food chain.
But an access consultant from Birmingham, who blogs anonymously as Lady What Wheels (LWW), has raised serious concerns about the campaign, which has already seen a string of bars in London’s West End sign up.
She said she respected the environmental aims, but pointed out that many disabled people rely on using straws to access their drinks in bars, cafes and restaurants.
In an open letter to the campaign, she says: “I am therefore very concerned that the way in which your campaign is seeking to ‘get rid of straws completely’ and ‘eradicate plastic drinking straws’ is damaging to the access needs of many disabled people.”
LWW, who herself has to use straws, told Disability News Service that she was happy to encourage people to use paper instead of plastic straws, but added: “It’s really short-sighted to make such a blasé campaign about a ‘war on straws’ because the less educated restaurants will take that option [of getting rid of all straws] because it is cheaper than providing paper straws.”
She said: “We need as much help as we can get to get access to the community, to bars, restaurants and so on.
“Just as we should be taking steps forward the last thing we need is a really, really simple, cheap step back. It is hard enough to campaign for a lift – let alone to have straws disappear.”
Her letter, which she posted on Myoo and her own blog, has already won support from other disabled people.
One suggested that – although he also endorsed the aim of not providing “unnecessary” straws – a venue failing to supply a straw on request could easily breach disability discrimination laws, as providing a straw would probably be seen as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.
Another commented: “I can’t drink without a straw – and while I do try to carry a packet with me, I’ve no interest in drinking in an establishment that can’t be bothered to ensure that this very basic (and cheap!) access need is met.”
A Myoo spokesman said: “We already understand the concerns of disabled people and will be making changes we feel appropriate to the Straw Wars website.”
He later added: “We will inform our partners of any changes when these changes are made.”
Miller accused of fiddling with her disability strategy ‘while Rome burns’
The minister for disabled people has been accused of delaying action to support disabled people while “Rome is burning” because of her government’s reforms.
Maria Miller was answering questions about progress on her delayed disability strategy at a packed meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group and several other disability-related all-party groups.
Two weeks ago, Disability News Service revealed that Miller had delayed the publication of the strategy for at least three months, with it now expected in September.
But Sue Bott, director of development for Disability Rights UK, told Miller at this week’s meeting that completion of her strategy “cannot come soon enough”.
She said: “Of course we know a lot of things take a long time to achieve and for disabled people Rome wasn’t built in a day, but our concern is that Rome is burning.”
Bott, who was speaking on behalf of a panel of disabled activists, added: “We are very concerned about the impact of reforms that are being announced day by day.
“Changes are happening very rapidly and the changes are not being looked at through the lens of disability.”
She said that she and the other campaigners on the panel believed the strategy should focus on issues such as the accessibility of the built environment and information, while they were very concerned about independent living and public transport.
Bott also raised concerns about the potential impact of the government’s “red tape challenge” on equality laws.
The disabled crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low told Miller that he was “concerned that the government appears to be rowing back on the equality duty”, which plays a key role in ensuring public bodies do not discriminate against disabled people.
And he pointed to concerns that the government was downgrading the importance of the Equality Act’s codes of practice and seeing them as a “burden” when they have been shown to provide “great assistance” to organisations in meeting the needs of disabled people.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas raised concerns about the impact of local authority cuts on the delivery of the disability strategy.
Other disabled activists on the panel with Bott called on Miller to ensure the disability strategy addressed issues such as the need for a change in attitudes towards disabled people, for equality in healthcare provision, for improved communication support, and for better support for people with autistic spectrum disorders.
Miller said the government was “dealing with an exceptionally difficult financial situation”, and that the financial pressures in social care were “very real”, with councils having to make savings of three per cent a year.
She pointed to the £2 billion a year the government was giving local authorities to fund social care, but when asked by Baroness Thomas, Miller said she did not know if that money had been ring-fenced [it has not].
She claimed there was “absolutely no intention to row back on the equality duty at all”, and said the government was “trying to make sure it is implemented in a way that is going to work for all concerned”.
She added: “We are going to be keeping a careful eye on making sure local authorities and others know what is required of them under that particular duty.”
Miller said there had been a theme during the meeting of a need for “practical support”.
She said: “I have had a few conversations with people recently about the challenges… those sorts of practical ways that the government needs to raise its game to do things better that I want the strategy to focus on, so it is not just words.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com