Have you ever heard of Geocaching? Neither had I until fairly recently. Put simply millions of people across the world hide little containers with inexpensive items inside them. They post the coordinates on a geocaching website and then using a mobile phone or other GPS device we can all look for them. It turns an ordinary country walk into a treasure hunt. Once you find “the treasure” you post a message on the website which the cache owner sees.
Sue and I have hidden one and when we go away in our motorhome we often look for caches near where we are staying. Now obviously some of the caches are hidden on mountains or on really difficult terrain so those of us with mobility impairments have a slight problem. But there are many locations which are very accessible and the websites usually give guidance about the terrain and whether the site is wheelchair accessible. I’m impressed and I’m now trying to ensure that when we find a “treasure” we leave a comment about the location’s accessibility. So if you have a go at this can I suggest you do the same!
Hope this weeks news is useful.
Coalition packs equality duty review with friendly faces
The panel set up to review a vital piece of equality legislation has been packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians, adding to fears of a new government assault on disabled people’s protection from discrimination.
The government also appears to have failed to include any disabled equality experts on the 11-strong review panel.
The review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) was announced by the government in May this year when it published the equalities section of its “red tape challenge”, which is looking at the “bureaucratic burdens” of legislation on business.
Leading disability rights figures have been warning that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, and even fear that the coalition wants to scrap the PSED altogether.
The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies.
The new review panel, expected to report in April 2013, is being chaired by the former Tory MP Rob Hayward, a former board member of the gay rights organisation Stonewall, who is joined by three Liberal Democrat and Tory local politicians, and Dr Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for education and culture for the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
Another member is Rachel de Souza, the head of a high-performing academy school in Norfolk, who won praise from right-wing commentators by bringing in former members of the armed services to keep her school open in November 2011 when teachers were striking over their pensions.
De Souza was also one of four school leaders invited to Downing Street for a meeting with David Cameron and his education secretary Michael Gove in January.
There are two senior civil servants on the panel, Jonathan Rees, the director general of the Government Equalities Office, and Charlie Pate, a senior Treasury official.
The other three members are Stephen Otter, the former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police; Paula Vasco-Knight, the chief executive of an NHS trust and national equality lead for the NHS Commissioning Board; and Baroness O’Neill, recently appointed by the government to chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Last month, David Cameron, the prime minister, claimed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) were slowing the pace of government reforms, and announced that he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”.
His comments led Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, to warn that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”.
As well as the equality duty review, which has been brought forward from 2015, the government has already slashed the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act.
A Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said the steering group was “not intended to be a politically representative body” but that its members had been appointed “because of their experience across the breadth of the public sector”.
She added: “We will not pre-judge the outcome of the review. We are determined to explore the issues rigorously.”
Asked why there appeared to be no disabled person on the panel, she said: “We have not sought detailed information about individual members’ protected characteristics.
“This is because members were selected because of their experience of the public sector, not because of particular protected characteristics.”
The announcement came as a government report found strong support among businesses for equality laws that prevent discrimination in areas such as recruitment and promotion, although two-thirds of those surveyed admitted knowing nothing about the contents of the Equality Act.
The employers – mostly small and medium-sized businesses – were nearly all supportive of laws that would ban selecting an employee for redundancy on the basis of their sexual orientation (90 per cent), and refusing to promote a woman because her husband practised a particular faith (90 per cent).
But they were less supportive of laws that would prevent an employer refusing promotion to a disabled employee because they had taken a lot of sick leave in the previous year (56 per cent).
The EHRC said the report showed that most businesses “support equality in the workplace as a benefit rather than a bureaucratic burden”.
More than 1,800 businesses across England, Scotland and Wales were surveyed between November 2011 and January 2012.
Budget benefit cuts are ‘serious threat’ to independence
Hundreds of thousands of disabled people without work are to be hit hard by further cuts to their support, despite the chancellor’s claims in his autumn statement that he was protecting disability benefits.
George Osborne announced this week that he would restrict the annual “uprating” increase in most working-age benefits to just one per cent for the next three years.
He claimed this would not include “disability benefits”, which would increase instead by the rate of inflation, but said it would apply to employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.
This will mean that the main element of ESA – currently £71 – will rise by just one per cent next year, as will the extra element for claimants in the work-related activity group – currently £28.15 – for those disabled people expected to move eventually into jobs.
The extra element for those not expected to take part in any work-related activity – the support component, currently £34.05 – will rise by the rate of inflation, about 2.2 per cent, while the various ESA “premiums” will also rise by at least the rate of inflation.
Osborne said the measures would save a further £3.7 billion in 2015-16, added to the £18 billion a year already slashed from welfare spending under the coalition.
He also announced new budget cuts of one per cent next year, and two per cent the following year, for government departments that have already seen their budgets slashed since 2010, while local authorities will see their central government funding cut by another two per cent in 2014-15.
Only one of 90 backbench MPs who quizzed the chancellor in the subsequent two-hour debate mentioned the impact of the cuts on disabled people.
Osborne again appeared to be trying to drive a wedge between those in and out of work by saying that he needed to be “fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees that their neighbour is still asleep, living a life on benefits”.
He was criticised earlier this year by a disabled Conservative parliamentary candidate when he spoke about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Many activists pointed out that there were good reasons why many disabled people would have their blinds or curtains closed early in the morning, related to both their impairments and the crisis in social care.
Disability Rights UK welcomed the protection for disabled people from the very low rises announced for some benefits, but said it was “very disappointed” with a number of other measures in the autumn statement, including the one per cent increase in ESA.
And it pointed to Osborne’s failure to mention social care spending, or provide any extra resources for cash-strapped social services departments, and warned that with the further cuts in government funding for councils it was “inevitable that disabled people and carers will lose help altogether or face ever higher charges for very basic support”.
The only politician who mentioned disability in the Commons debate that followed Osborne’s statement was Labour’s MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who told the chancellor that “passing on a two per cent cut to local government will involve cuts to adult social services across the country, affecting the vulnerable, the disabled and the elderly”.
In reply, Osborne claimed the coalition had provided “billions more for social care”.
The Hardest Hit campaign – a coalition of organisations representing disabled people – said the one per cent rise in working-age benefits had “come at a time when the government’s Work Programme is failing to help disabled people back into work”.
It said that the chancellor’s decision on ESA “would mean a significant cash loss for thousands of disabled people who rely on this money to live their daily lives”, while other below-inflation rises to benefits such as working tax credits and housing benefit would pose “a serious threat” to disabled people’s independence and “a major compromise on quality of life”.
Steve Winyard, a Hardest Hit spokesman, added: “The 1.3 per cent portion of ESA claimants securing work through the Work Programme is a risible return and reflects not a desire [by] the other 98.7 per cent of claimants to stay in bed, as the chancellor appeared to suggest, but huge inefficiency in Work Programme contracts and ongoing barriers to work for disabled people.”
ODI silence suggests ministers think alliance voices will be more to their liking
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have questioned the government’s willingness to listen to disabled people, following the first meeting of a new “alliance” set up to advise the government on disability issues.
Leading disabled figures who attended a preliminary meeting of the Disability Action Alliance (DAA) were left frustrated by the lack of clear information about how the group would operate, how it would be funded, and what its purpose was.
But they also questioned why the alliance of charities and private and public sector organisations should be necessary at all when there was an existing group of DPOs set up to perform an almost identical task.
The preliminary meeting of DAA took place two weeks ago and was attended by several leading DPOs, companies such as British Telecom and Lloyds Banking Group, three government departments, quangos, and charities such as Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability.
The government will now ask these and other organisations if they want to become DAA members, and will also set up a steering group.
The government has said DAA will focus on “delivering action through partnership”, bringing together DPOs with public, private and third sector organisations, and will “operate alongside, and not replace, existing mechanisms for engaging with disabled people”.
But some of those who attended the DAA meeting have been left questioning its purpose, how it will work, and why the government appears to have abandoned its existing Network of Networks (NoN), a collection of 12 DPOs set up under Labour to create “a more efficient two-way communication between disabled people and government”.
NoN completed one consultation on disabled people’s views of the work of the DWP, and passed on the results to the government, but was never given the go-ahead for its next piece of work.
Its members say the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) is now refusing to answer questions about NoN and whether it still has a role. Instead, it is focusing on DAA.
Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), who attended the DAA meeting, said NoN had written to seek clarification from the new Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey.
He said: “My suspicion is that they didn’t like the actual answers that were given in the first consultation.”
He added: “The work the ODI have asked the alliance to do sounds very, very similar to what the ODI were originally going to be asking the Network of Networks to do.”
Melanie Close, chief executive of Disability Equality North West, which is part of NoN but was not invited to the DAA meeting, said ODI appeared to have dropped NoN without telling its members, and was no longer replying to emails about the project.
She said: “It seems like they have looked at those DPOs and thought, ‘We don’t like those answers, we are going to try somebody else.’”
Close said she believed the government only wanted “yes people” to be part of DAA and did not want people “who are going to be a bit more contentious, who are going to challenge”.
She was also angry that there appeared to have been no DPOs from the north of England invited to the DAA meeting.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, who attended the DAA meeting, said she was concerned at the prospect of a DPO-led body like NoN being replaced by one that was not user-led.
She said: “I went along to try to find out more and left with no clearer idea. It was frustrating in its lack of information about the context and the thinking behind the alliance, and how it would work. It seemed ill-thought-out.”
Douglas Gilroy, who attended the DAA meeting on behalf of The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFB), but spoke to Disability News Service afterwards in a personal capacity, said he believed DAA would be just “window dressing” for the government.
He said: “I think it is better that NFB gets on with its work, which is campaigning. I really think the disability movement should be led by disabled people and I do not think that this is quite the scenario [with DAA].”
Some of the disabled people who attended were slightly more positive about DAA.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was “more than happy to give it a go”, although he said he would “not be part of anything that becomes a talking-shop”.
Heather Fisken, who manages the Independent Living in Scotland project, said the DAA meeting was an “interesting event” but there were “still some questions to be answered about how the group will fit in with the work of existing organisations and groups”, although it was still “early days”.
Anger as government adds disabled people to workfare scheme
Disabled people could now be forced to work indefinitely for their out-of-work benefits, as a result of new government rules introduced this week.
Those who fail to co-operate with the periods of “work experience” arranged for them could have their benefits cut.
The new rules – introduced on the UN’s international day of disabled people – will apply to claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been assessed as being able to find paid work at some point and so have been placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG).
The decision to force them into work experience could be taken by a Jobcentre Plus adviser or one of the private sector contractors paid by the government to find jobs for long-term unemployed benefit claimants through its Work Programme.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) made it clear that there were “no plans to set a fixed minimum or maximum length for a work placement”, although they were expected to last “for around two weeks” and “must be reasonable and meet the claimant’s circumstances”.
The DWP said the placement must benefit the community and be “appropriate” to the claimant’s impairment, but could include cases “where someone refuses to take reasonable steps to address a barrier which is stopping them working”.
John McArdle, a founding member of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Black Triangle, said: “It should be obvious to anyone why this is a bad idea. People who are unfit for work are being forced into unpaid ‘employment’ on pain of being made destitute.”
He said he believed the scheme was “immoral… and possibly illegal” and would probably be challenged in court.
And he suggested that any disabled person whose health was “seriously harmed” as a result of such work experience would be able to bring a clear case of negligence or discrimination.
He added: “We are talking about people with multiple impairments and/or illnesses as evidenced by real medical experts and not DWP/Atos ‘disability assessors’.”
In addition to the workfare scheme, DWP said that other WRAG claimants will be offered short periods of “voluntary” work experience.
A DWP spokesman said it was not possible to predict what proportion of ESA claimants would be expected to take part in the workfare scheme, as placements would be “decided on a case by case basis and must be appropriate to the individual’s circumstances”.
The DWP said in a statement that such work experience would “help people with limited employment history get a flavour of the workplace environment, gain new skills and boost their confidence for an eventual return to work”.
Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said: “People on sickness benefits who do all they can to improve their chances of moving back in to a job have nothing to worry about; they will get their benefits and we will do all we can to help.
“But in the small number of cases where people refuse to stick to their part of the bargain, it’s only right there are consequences.”
English Heritage reveals a time and a place for disability history
From churches designed for Deaf congregations to the first schools for blind children and one of the earliest disabled people’s organisations, a new website project charts the history of disabled people through the buildings they have used.
Disability in Time and Place was launched this week by English Heritage – the government’s adviser on the historic environment – and features scores of photographs that link buildings to the stories of disabled people over the last 1,000 years.
Stories explored include the formation in 1894 of The Guild of the Brave Poor Things, a user-led group for disabled people; the first school for blind people, set up in 1791 by Edward Rushton, who was blind himself; and two churches designed for Deaf people in the 1920s, which feature dual pulpits, one for the priest and one for the interpreter.
Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), which worked as a partner on the project, welcomed the decision of a “mainstream” organisation like English Heritage to focus a project on disability history.
ALLFIE’s own What Did You Learn At School Today? oral history project is currently recording disabled people’s experiences of education over the last 100 years, in conjunction with the British Library.
Flood said both projects “use history to highlight how much there is still to do to support the inclusion and equality of disabled people”.
But she said the projects also highlighted the “sense of isolation and the sense of segregation”, both through the “physical incarceration” of disabled people in the old asylums, long-stay hospitals and residential special schools, and the “emotional sense of segregation it creates for people”.
And she said there was a “very clear link” between the segregation of disabled people and disability hate crime.
Flood pointed to disabled children who were segregated into special schools and then left school with “no anchors in their community”, a situation which “drives the incidence of hate crime”.
The launch of the new web pages took place during UK Disability History Month, which this year has focused on challenging the ideas that have led to disability hate crime.
Richard Rieser, coordinator of UK Disability History Month, welcomed the new English Heritage pages as a “framework” to build on.
He said: “The rights that so many people have fought for are very much under threat at the moment.
“It is very important that the coming generation [of disabled people] realise that whatever rights we have got have had to be struggled for.”
But he said English Heritage’s work on the website should be just the beginning, and that he hoped it would spark debate among disabled people, who would be able to put “flesh and blood” on the “bare bones” of the pages.
UN’s international day sees awards, celebrations… and protests
Disabled people took part in protests, campaigns, awards, marches, conferences and celebrations as they found different ways to mark the UN’s international day of disabled people.
Many of the events used 3 December to continue the series of protests against government cuts to disability benefits and services, while others celebrated the achievements of organisations that have helped improve disabled people’s lives.
Breakthrough UK announced the winners of its National Independent Living Awards 2012, which included Harrow Asian Deaf Club, Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, and retail giant Wilkinson.
In Guildford, Surrey, more than 350 people attended the first of a free, two-day sports festival organised by the British Paralympic Association, with more than 1,000 attending over the two days.
More than 20 Paralympians – including stars such as Jonnie Peacock, Sophie Christiansen, Ben Quilter and Mark Colbourne – were on hand to take part in the inaugural ParalympicsGB Sports Fest, which provided an opportunity for disabled people to try out different Paralympic sports and discover how to get involved in them.
In west London, members of Harrow Association of Disabled People took part in a 200-strong march to protest at disabled people being “hit the hardest by cuts to the benefits and services they need to live their lives”.
The march, which was joined by eight local councillors – seven Labour and one independent – and Labour MP Gareth Thomas, passed the Department for Work and Pensions’ Jobcentre Plus offices and ended at Harrow council’s Civic Centre headquarters, where Labour council leader Thaya Idaikkadar spoke to them about their concerns.
In Croydon, disabled people held a vigil inside the reception area of the building used by Atos Healthcare to test people’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
The vigil, organised by the Croydon and Bromley branch of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), included a minute’s silence to remember the sick and disabled people who had “suffered as a result of the punitive regime of assessments” operated by Atos on behalf of the government.
They were refused permission to leave flowers in the building, so laid them instead at the local war memorial.
Protesters from Cardiff DPAC gathered beside the statue of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, for a candlelight vigil which featured about 1,200 candles spelling out the words “Atos Kills”, before continuing their own remembrance protest by blocking traffic for about 30 minutes.
They and many other activists believe the assessments, as carried out by Atos, are putting thousands of sick and disabled people under serious and unnecessary strain, forcing them further into poverty, and are even responsible for many deaths, including some people driven to suicide.
Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People marked the UN’s day by releasing a striking visual and audio representation of the Austerity War report it commissioned and published in September, which describes how the burden of the government’s cuts are falling unfairly on disabled people’s shoulders.
In contrast, the Department for Work and Pensions used the day to launch its Role Models: Inspire a Generation campaign, which will use video clips of young disabled role models talking about the barriers they have overcome to inspire other young disabled people to “help fulfil their potential and achieve their aspirations”.
The European Commission made its contribution to the day by publishing proposed legislation to ensure the accessibility of public sector websites.
But the proposed laws would cover only 12 public services – such as websites for benefits, applying for passports, car registration, birth and marriage certificates, enrolling in higher education, and communicating with the police.
The European Disability Forum welcomed the publication as “a first positive step” but said it would work with MEPs and the European Council to ensure the final legislation was “even more far-reaching”.
The European Blind Union said the proposal was “a missed opportunity” and was “simply not going to deliver the radical change that is needed” because it failed to cover all public sector websites and private sector sites that deliver “basic services to citizens”.
In Tower Hamlets, east London, the disabled people’s organisation Real joined other charities to host a free information event (on 4 December) and party, and celebrated both the international day and its own success in winning a new local authority contract to give disabled people more say over how services are run in the borough.
Meanwhile, Remploy ignored continuing anger over the closure of many of its remaining sheltered factoriesand released a video featuring pledges from employers – and disabled people such as Paralympic champion David Weir – to push for an improvement in the employment rate of disabled people.
Just three days later, Remploy announced that another 682 disabled people had been told they were at risk of redundancy because of its closure programme.
There were also many powerful blogs using 3 December to warn of the threat to disabled people’s rights posed by the government’s “austerity” policies.
Jane Young wrote that there was “little to celebrate” on 3 December, with the anticipated implementation of a “horrifying range of policies set to devastate the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled Britons”, with the threat next year of “a tsunami of human need, the like of which we haven’t seen in Britain for many years”.
Kaliya Franklin wrote in her blog of a time when Britain “led the way in promoting rights and independence for disabled people”, while Neil Crowther said the government’s “perverse and illogical” assault on disabled people’s rights was “not only unjust, it is pure economic folly”.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com