Bus Access breakthrough, DWP silent on benefit claim system, Praise for TfL, Fitness to work test improvements.

As I write this a man is lying underneath my powered wheelchair trying to fit a new left hand motor because the old one has developed a sort of nervous ticking noise. Very reminiscent of the days when most children rode around on Raleigh bikes and shoved a lolly stick into the back wheel spokes in order to make a similar clicking sound! The trouble with this annoying noise on a powered chair is that you can’t creep up on anyone and you spend all day on tenterhooks waiting for the chair to breakdown.

Talking of bikes my son George is training hard for a non-stop cycle ride from Manchester to London a distance of about 250 miles. He is doing this to raise money for Disability Rights (UK) the disability charity I chair. So far he has managed to break the frame on two bikes while training and is now on his third. (I seem to have the same effect on wheelchairs as he does on bikes). The latest bike has been christened Roger I have no idea why. Why do we give names to things like cars, bikes and ships? Strange. Anyway if you want to sponsor “Roger” visit the Just Giving page at http://www.justgiving.com/George-Friend it would be fantastic if you could help.

I’m off to Spain for three weeks so there will be a short pause in blog activity.

News Roundup

Judge’s ‘disappointing’ ruling could still prove a bus access breakthrough
Campaigners believe they have made a legal breakthrough in the battle to ensure better access to buses for disabled people, despite losing a county court claim for discrimination.

Middlesbrough County Court found that bus company Arriva North East did not breach the Equality Act by refusing to allow two wheelchair-users – Jane Elliott and Andrew Ward – onto their buses in Darlington.

But Judge Peter Bowers did find in his judgment – released this week – that Arriva was subject to the Equality Act in the service it provides to disabled people.

This is believed to be the first time a judge has stated that the Equality Act does offer protection from discrimination to disabled bus passengers.

Another five claimants are putting their cases on hold, while Elliott seeks leave to appeal.

She had described how an Arriva driver refused to allow her onto his bus because there was a pushchair occupying the wheelchair space.

But the judge ruled that – because it was early afternoon and she was not in an “isolated or potentially dangerous area”, with another bus likely to arrive in about ten minutes – Elliott had not experienced “substantial disadvantage” by not being allowed to board.

Elliott and Ward argued that Arriva’s policy of “first come first served” for the wheelchair space was a breach of the Equality Act, while Arriva argued that the act did not apply because its duties were set out instead under public transport regulations.

Despite finding against the two claimants, the judge made it clear in his judgment that the Equality Act does apply to Arriva.

He said: “Although in the specific circumstances of these cases, the Defendant’s policy has not breached the Equality Act requirements, I can envisage circumstances where this policy might fall foul of the Act.”

Chris Fry, from Unity Law, the solicitors representing the seven claimants, said this was the first time a court had found a bus company could breach the Equality Act by discriminating against passengers.

He said: “We said that failure to provide access to a wheelchair space is a failure to make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.

“The judge has accepted that Arriva is under a duty to make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act to avoid passengers being at a substantial disadvantage.”

He added: “We win on the key issue, but we lose simply because the judge decided in these two particular cases there wasn’t enough of a disadvantage.

“The outcome is disappointing… but it is encouraging that at least some of the core arguments in principle are accepted. This gives us a foundation to move forward, developing awareness of disabled passengers’ rights.”

Unity Law will seek permission from the high court to appeal Elliott’s case, and will be consulting other organisations, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is also taking similar cases in other parts of the country.

The case was supported by Darlington Association on Disability, but the organisation referred a request for a comment to Unity Law.

Nigel Featham, managing director for Arriva North East, said in a statement: “We welcome the judgement but were disappointed that the matter went to court as we are always open and willing to discuss issues affecting people with disabilities to help make public transport even more accessible wherever possible.”

But the company declined to comment further.
DWP stays silent over ‘Stone Age’ benefit claim system

A government service that allows disabled people to complete claims for disability living allowance (DLA) online only works with outdated web browsers and computer operating systems, campaigners have discovered.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) web page should allow people to file an online claim for DLA, attendance allowance (AA) and overseas pensions.

But the page warns visitors that the “service doesn’t work with some modern browsers and operating systems” and that DWP is “considering how best to provide this service in future”, while claimants “may want to claim in another way”.

Those who click on a “tell me more” link are told that the service “does not work properly with Macs”, that “you are likely to have problems if you use Internet Explorer 7, 8, 9 and 10, Windows Vista or a smartphone” and that “there is also a high risk that if you use browsers not listed below, including Chrome, Safari or Firefox, the service will not display all the questions you need to answer”.

It adds: “This is likely to prevent you from successfully completing or submitting the form.”

The website also warns that there may be problems with users of the screen-reading software packages Jaws and Supernova.

The only other options offered are to print out the 56-page application form and fill it in by hand, or to order a claim pack from the benefit enquiry line, and again fill the claim form in by hand.

One disabled campaigner said she was “amazed and appalled to discover that it is almost impossible to claim online unless you have a computer from the Stone Age”, and said the situation was “farcical beyond belief”.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Anyone who is unable to use the existing online system to apply for DLA, AA or Overseas State Pension can always make a claim by phone.”

She stressed that the new universal credit and personal independence payment – the replacement for working-age DLA – would use new IT systems.

But she was unable to say why the DLA, AA and overseas pension system only works with old-style browsers and operating systems, how long this had been a problem, and when it would be fixed.
Transport for London wins praise for rolling out the ramps

London’s mayor has appointed two user-led organisations to improve the way staff on the capital’s tube network provide assistance to disabled and older passengers.

Inclusion London and Transport for All will deliver the training at five “centres of excellence”, at Stratford, King’s Cross St Pancras, London Bridge, Green Park and Westminster stations.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “Disabled and older passengers tell us that staff who are disability equality trained and confident to assist them make all the difference to a journey.

“That’s why Inclusion London and Transport for All are excited about this new initiative and we look forward to providing an enhanced level of training to London Underground trainers and key staff at the five centres for excellence – developed in consultation with disabled and older Londoners who use the tube and delivered by disabled trainers.”

Transport for London (TfL) – which runs London’s public transport network – also announced that it was rolling out the use of boarding ramps to 40 extra platforms and 19 more stations this summer.

TfL introduced the ramps as a temporary measure during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – across 16 stations – and they proved so popular with disabled passengers that they were retained after the games ended.

The announcement means the portable ramp scheme will soon cover more than half of the 66 stations that are step-free from street to platform.

It will mean that 149 of the 195 platforms that are step-free from street to platform will soon also be accessible from street to train, thanks to the ramps – which bridge the gap between platform and train – as well as existing raised platform sections, low-floor trains and other improvements.

Introducing more of the ramps was one of the commitments made last December by TfL and the mayor, Boris Johnson, in Your Accessible Transport Network, their plan for improving access to public transport across the capital.

Transport for All – which has “campaigned vociferously” for TfL to keep the ramps and for them to be rolled out to other stations – said the news was “a real boost to our right to get out and about and enjoy London”.

Wheelchair-user Sulaiman Khan, who has also campaigned on the issue, said the announcement was “great news”.

He said: “Ramps will give older and disabled people more freedom and independence to get on with our lives and not be second-class citizens.”

He said he had previously used the tube about once a year, but since the ramps were introduced he has travelled into London using the underground on more than 50 occasions.

He said: “Before, I’d have to take a taxi, but now it’s much easier, faster and cheaper. Having ramps at more stations will enable me to travel more spontaneously and with more flexibility.”

TfL is also improving signage that shows step-free routes through stations, and has launched a new Twitter feed (@TfLAccess) to update disabled passengers on service improvements and advise them of any changes – such as lifts or escalators that are out of order – that may affect their journeys.

Among other improvements, a “world-leading” system on the Victoria line now gives real-time visual information on disruptions for passengers who cannot hear the driver’s announcements.

Johnson said: “London now has one of the most accessible public transport networks in the world. But it’s not perfect and we must go further.

“That’s why we’re investing in imaginative solutions to make further improvements.

“More boarding ramps and better signage, information and staff training, are concrete examples of our commitment to make the transport network as accessible as possible.”

TfL said that 27 more underground and overground stations would be made step-free over the next eight years, while it was applying for Department for Transport funding to extend this number.
Figures show ‘fitness for work’ test has made ‘considerable advances’

For the first time, the government’s own figures show that the majority of people whose “fitness for work” has been tested have been found eligible for out-of-work disability benefits.

New government figures show that 48 per cent of those whose claim was assessed for employment and support allowance (ESA) were found “fit for work” by government “decision-makers”.

The figures relate to those who started a new claim for ESA between June and August last year.

Conservative work and pensions ministers have previously made much of figures that they claimed showed most of those seeking the benefit for the first time were actually able to work and ineligible for support.

But the new figures show that the majority of assessed claimants are now being found eligible for ESA.

And once the impact of appeals has eventually fed through the system – with about two-fifths of those found fit for work appealing, and between 30 and 40 per cent of such appeals successful – the proportion found eligible for ESA is likely to be even higher.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report also states that 29 per cent of all completed assessments that were started between last June and August found the claimant eligible for the support group – for those disabled people not expected to carry out any work-related activity.

This compares with just 11 per cent of those who began claims between December 2008 and February 2009, the first period of what was then a new benefit.

The DWP report suggests that the fall in the percentage of new claimants found fit for work, from a peak of 65 per cent four years ago, could at least partly be due to changes introduced following the three independent reviews of the WCA carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

But the figures also show that – once the effect of appeals has been taken into account – the proportion of claimants being found fit for work has hardly changed in three years.

This could suggest that the Harrington changes are having most impact on the way the assessments are carried out by the government’s contractor, Atos Healthcare.

The disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a leading campaigner for WCA reform, said the system was still “badly flawed and still gets way too many decisions wrong” but that there had been “considerable advances”.

She said: “At the moment, some [campaigning] groups give the impression that no-one is successful, which just terrifies people unnecessarily.”

She said campaigners should celebrate the much higher numbers now being placed in the ESA support group, “while calling for areas still failing to be improved”.

Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said: “The improvements we have made to the work capability assessment since 2010 are making a real difference.

“By continuing to refine the system to make it fairer and more accurate we can ensure that people who are able to work get the encouragement they need to get a job, while those who are too sick to work get real support.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – has provided consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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