PIP assessments, Lottery Funding for IL research, Spending cap on benefits, RNIB and digital change, More needed re bus access, Another setback for coalition, WOW Petition, UN International Day, Thomsons accused

Like many of you I’m feeling particularly sad and reflective today. I grew up in a world where it was routine to see people who were different being routinely excluded, ill treated and oppressed. Nelson Mandela changed that for millions and showed by example that it is possible to overcome oppression by forgiving the oppressor. The world is still a very difficult place for many but I’m glad I that we have his example to take strength from. He left his mark across our world and we all have cause to be grateful for his life. The huge outpouring of emotion which greeted the news of his death is testimony to the universal respect accorded to this extraordinary human being. Let us hope that his wish to see all people, regardless of their differences accorded the same rights under the law continues now that he is no longer with us. RIP Nelson Mandela.

News Roundup

PIP assessments: ‘Lengthy delays and staff rebellion’ hit Capita’s PIP programme

A nurse working for one of the two outsourcing giants assessing disabled people for the new personal independence payment (PIP) has told how its testing programme has been hit by huge delays, IT problems… and a staff rebellion.

The whistleblower, Laura*, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that assessments she completed in September on behalf of Capita have still not been submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for a decision on PIP eligibility.

Laura said: “I don’t like the idea that people I saw in September still haven’t got a decision.

“I feel so sorry for the claimants. They are lovely people in genuine need. They must be tearing their hair out.”

Meanwhile, a group of experienced Capita assessors have submitted a “grievance” to managers about the way the programme is being run, Laura claimed, and late last month met with Dr Stephen Duckworth, the disabled executive who leads on the PIP assessment for Capita.

Although DNS has not been able to confirm that the whistleblower is a genuine Capita employee, much of the information she provided has been confirmed by the company.

Some of it mirrors concerns about the assessment work being carried out by the other contractor, Atos Healthcare, but her claims suggest Capita may even be experiencing greater problems and delays than Atos.

Atos is carrying out assessments in London, the south and east of England, as well as the north of England and Scotland, while Capita is assessing claimants across Wales and the Midlands, and will eventually assess claimants in Northern Ireland.

Capita was reportedly so concerned about the delays to its assessment programme that it told staff it was bringing in three trouble-shooters from another part of the company.

Like the majority of assessors working for Capita, Laura carries out assessments in people’s homes, travelling by car from one assessment to another.

She said: “After two weeks training you are home-based and let loose to do these assessments. There is very little support, and they are very badly organised.

“The planning department – the people who organise the appointments – is under-resourced, and everybody says that the way they plan the visits is very inefficient.

“There is a lot of dissatisfaction among assessors. They want to do a good job but they are encountering a lot of problems.”

Among other claims, Laura said that Capita originally employed just one doctor to review all of the assessment reports individually before passing them to DWP, leading to a huge backlog.

Capita then began to train new auditors, but the advice they have been giving assessors after auditing their reports has often proved “inconsistent” and confusing.

She was also told by new recruits that – at the beginning of their training course – they were told to inform claimants to expect a PIP decision within 30 days of their assessment. By the end of the two-week course, they were being told only to inform claimants to expect a result “in due course”.

Laura said: “I don’t think it was set up well in the first place. It is common sense that one doctor could not deal with all the reports.”

She said delays were being compounded by IT problems, because every time an assessor experienced a glitch with their secure laptop, it had to be taken to Capita’s Birmingham “hub” to be repaired, as a fault with the security system meant it could not be repaired remotely.

She added: “I think Capita mean well, but the lack of organisation must be resulting in hardship for claimants because of the length of time it is taking.”

Capita did not want to comment on Laura’s particular claims, but a spokeswoman said: “PIP is an entirely new benefit and therefore requires a new way of assessing claimants’ requirements.”

She said that DWP’s “audit criteria” for PIP had been subject to “detailed scrutiny” so as to ensure that “exceptionally high standards are reached in every assessment”, which meant that “assessments due to be carried out in these initial stages are taking much longer than originally expected”.

She added: “Capita is working closely with DWP to meet the new rigorous audit criteria by investing in further training, coaching and peer reviews for existing assessors and auditors.

“We are also employing more health professionals and more call centre staff. Any delays experienced by claimants will not affect the date from which they are paid.”

When asked if Capita would like to comment on any of Laura’s particular claims, she said: “Capita does not comment on speculation or rumours.”

A DWP spokesman also declined to comment on Laura’s particular claims.

But this week DWP also admitted that there were delays to the PIP claiming process, particularly because assessments were taking longer than expected.

*DNS has changed some of Laura’s personal details in order to protect her identity
Lottery’s £5 million is ‘fantastic opportunity’ for independent living research

Disabled people will be at the heart of a £5 million, lottery-funded programme to research the state of independent living and come up with “practical improvements to disabled people’s lives across the UK”.

The Big Lottery Fund (BLF) launched the five-year programme on Tuesday (3 December), the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD).

The launch came days after Disabled People Against Cuts used an emergency meeting in parliament torelease a new report on the crisis in independent living, which called for “urgent action” to protect disabled people from the “devastating impact” of the government’s austerity programme.

The announcement of the new grant follows discussions dating back at least 18 months with disabled people’s organisations such as Disability Rights UK (DR UK), and other disability and research organisations, as well as the Office for Disability Issues.

The Research for Impact: Disabled People programme will investigate the level of independent living disabled people are achieving at present, and examine their ideas for how improvements could be made.

BLF – which gives out two-fifths of the money raised for good causes by the National Lottery – is looking for a single organisation to lead the programme.

This lead organisation will be expected to work closely with partners, with disabled people playing key roles in designing and taking part in the research, setting up pilot projects, and spreading awareness of any findings.

BLF hopes the new programme will “inform policy and bring about practical improvements to disabled people’s lives across the UK”.

A BLF spokeswoman said: “As a result of views expressed in the discussion about priority research issues for the programme, we decided that rather than the Big Lottery Fund specifying priorities, they would be determined by disabled people in the first stage of the project, so that the research would be driven by disabled people from the start.”

She added: “Research on disability issues was chosen for funding as although previous research has shown a relationship between disability and poverty there is a lack of research from the point of view of disabled people themselves.

“In addition, their involvement in all aspects of the programme would offer opportunities to challenge stereotypical attitudes as well as enrich the quality of the research.”

Sue Bott, DR UK’s director of development, welcomed the news of the grant, and said her organisation had been discussing the idea with BLF for about 18 months.

She said: “BLF had an idea that they wanted a research programme on disability issues. We got to hear about it and we had a meeting to try to find out what was going on and to make sure that disabled people were leading on this.

“It is a fantastic opportunity to research the issues that are really of concern to disabled people and that makes such a change because normally we haven’t had much say in the subject of the research.”

Bott said DR UK was interested in bidding for the funding, probably in conjunction with a larger research or academic organisation that would administer the funds.

She believes the project has to be led by a disabled people’s organisation. “Getting the research right and asking the right questions has always been at the heart of the disability movement and it is only when we have had the space to ask the right questions and research the things that really matter to us… that we really have been able to make progress.

“Research isn’t just a little extra on the sidelines. It is fundamental to advancing social policy and our causes.”

But she said there were concerns that one of the large, non-user-led disability charities would secure the funding.

She said: “That has been our concern all the way along. What we don’t want is for this very good idea to fail because the big charities muscle in and take over. We are going to do everything we can to avoid that happening.”

DR UK said it had also been working with three other national disability organisations – Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Action in Northern Ireland – and has held round-table meetings funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to “tease out the issues of concern to disabled people that we would like to see research on”.

The government also welcomed the research funding.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “The theme of [IDPD] was breaking down the barriers that disabled people face, so it’s fitting that the Big Lottery Fund project has a focus on identifying improvements that can be made based on the experience and insight of disabled people.

“This is also at the heart of the government’s approach set out in our new Fulfilling Potential disability strategy.”

But he added: “Alongside the involvement of disabled people themselves, we would recommend that the research involve multi-disciplinary teams, to reflect the likely complexity of the issues to be explored.

“This could include the research being framed by sociological, psychological, economic and geographical insights.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “While fully welcoming this very important move by the Big Lottery Fund, especially since the importance of involving disabled people who actually use care and support services is given prominence, we feel that plans to close the Independent Living Fund and introduce a new care bill before this research has actually happened are both premature moves and should be put on hold until the research has been completed.”
New spending cap will include DLA, AA, PIP… and ESA

The government is to limit the total amount spent every year on social security, including key disability benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) and disability living allowance (DLA).

The Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed today (Thursday) in his autumn statement that he was pushing ahead with plans for a cap on “overall welfare spending”.

Osborne said the government needed to take further action to curb social security spending, on top of the £21.6 billion annual cuts already announced since 2010.

He confirmed that spending on the state pension – which makes up nearly half of total social security spending – would be exempt from the cap, although he made no mention of disabled people or disability in his speech.

The spending cap will also not apply to jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), JSA-passported housing benefit expenditure, and their equivalents under the new universal credit, although all other social security spending will be included.

A Treasury spokesman confirmed to Disability News Service that this meant that DLA, attendance allowance (AA), personal independence payment (PIP) and ESA would all be included in the spending cap.

Treasury documents claim that excluding spending on state pensions and jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) was “consistent with the scope of the cap”, before stating that spending on DLA increased by £4.5 billion in real terms in the 10 years from 2000-01, and warning that the “projected cost” of ESA “continues to increase”.

The level of the cap for the first year, 2015-16, will be set at next year’s spring budget.

If the government wants to change the level of the cap, there will be a Commons debate and vote, led by the work and pensions secretary. There will also be a debate and vote if the government breaches the cap.

Kate Green, Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people, confirmed that Labour would itself adopt a spending cap on social security, but had yet to “define any of the detail”.

Asked whether Labour would include DLA, PIP and AA in its cap, she said that was “a very good question”.

She said: “You are trying to bear down on rising benefits as a result of economic failure. It is about trying to bear down on the drivers of economic failure, it is not about trying to beat up on disabled people.”

But she said that what drove PIP was “more complicated” than other benefits being considered for the cap, as the benefit represented “the failure of society to meet the needs of disabled people in other ways”.

She said: “It might be quite hard to penalise them for societal failure, but equally you want [a welfare cap] that drives that societal improvement.”

Green said that setting such targets for government had been proved to work, and pointed to the child poverty target set by the Labour government, which she said had proved “immensely helpful” as it “really concentrated policy-makers’ minds on how we were going to meet that target”.

She added: “The benefit cap, operated with the right intentions, could have the same effect; it actually forces concentration on the right policy solutions.”

Green said that until the government provided all of the details on its cap she couldn’t say whether disabled people should be worried or not.

But Steve Winyard, head of policy and campaigns for RNIB, said that setting a cap would mean the government would have to “cut help for blind and partially-sighted people”, or find some way of capping the number of people seeking help.

He said: “The government cannot cap blindness but has a duty to ensure support is available to people with genuine needs.

“Blind and partially-sighted people fear further cuts in help. Plans to cap support for disadvantaged disabled people need examining very carefully to ensure genuine needs do not go unmet.”
RNIB sets out plans to keep up with pace of digital change

The UK’s biggest charity for blind people is launching a “major realignment” of its priorities, putting more money into supporting people who have just been diagnosed with sight loss.

The new long-term strategy will demand far more from the charity’s commercial operations, newly grouped under the RNIB Solutions umbrella, and its fundraising department.

This should allow RNIB to spend “quite a substantial amount” on funding new eye clinic liaison officers, who are based at eye clinics and provide both emotional and practical support for those diagnosed with sight loss.

It will improve the current “patchwork service”, where only about eight of the 100 people every day who are diagnosed with permanent sight loss are offered such support.

But RNIB told Disability News Service (DNS) that there would also be some job losses within the charity, although it was “not possible to put a figure on this as we need to be sensitive to the staff affected and nothing is final”.

Under the changes, services such as Insight Radio, Talking Books, National Library, and National Talking Newspapers and Magazines (NTNM) have been brought together under the RNIB Solutions umbrella by a new group director, Neil Heslop.

These services will be asked to produce more revenue, said Heslop, so they no longer need to be subsidised and can instead become a “net contributor” to the charity.

But – in a possible sign of the sensitivity of Heslop’s plans – RNIB later insisted that “services such as NTNM and Talking Books will continue to be subsidised as we need to make sure these services continue”.

The spokeswoman was not able to say how much subsidy the services within RNIB Solutions currently require.

Heslop has held senior positions in the telecommunications industry in the UK and US, including spells as head of strategy and general manager of retail operations at O2, and as chief executive of Cincinnati Bell Wireless, and was awarded an OBE in 2002 for services to British telecommunications and charity.

In an interview with DNS, Heslop said RNIB had to keep up – for the first time – with the “extraordinary pace of digital change”, but that it would be a “very real challenge” to be “sufficiently fleet of foot”.

He said RNIB Solutions services would need to provide content more effectively, faster, and cheaper, and reach “far more people” than they do currently.

One aim is to double the number of audio books available over the next couple of years from the current stock of about 20,000.

The first change that service-users might notice, in the first six months of next year, will be increased choice in how content is delivered, such as offering the Talking Books service in new formats such as MP3, digital downloads and even on USB sticks.

Heslop admits the charity will need to spend more on marketing and secure efficiency gains, at a time when the government’s austerity programme has hit funding from local authorities for Talking Books, one of the charity’s key revenue streams.

But he said the charity was “stable and growing and healthy”, with revenues of £120 million a year, and the changes were “because we are wanting to do more”, and not because of any financial problems.

Heslop also wants RNIB to be the “retailer of choice” for independent living products for blind and partially-sighted people, and to use his corporate experience to help RNIB offer consultancy services to business on making their products and services accessible.

But he also insists that he is “very sensitive” to the “potential negative impact” that a huge charity like RNIB can have when bidding for contracts against small, local disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).

He adds: “The over-riding principle has to be what is in the interests of the beneficiary, the community we are here to serve.

“Where we are effective in meeting need, that’s what we need to aspire to do.”

The priority, he says, is to ensure that blind and partially-sighted people receive a good service, rather than worrying about who is providing it.

He adds: “We are a charity and we are entrusted with other people’s money and therefore it is incumbent on us to ensure that every pound that people give us, we do our damndest to get the maximum benefit to our beneficiaries.”

But he also pointed to one of RNIB’s five core values, which is that it is led by blind and partially-sighted people – it now considers itself to be a DPO – and that its members are a “key part of our decision-making criteria”.

Heslop says he hopes his record of leading organisational change in the telecommunications industry, his focus on using technology “in a creative way to deliver value to customers”, and being “absolutely driven by a customer-centric approach”, would help him to be successful at RNIB.

He also points to a 25-year history as a blind person working with voluntary organisations, alongside his mainstream business career.

He is a co-founder and long-standing trustee of Blind In Business, a charity which helps young blind and partially-sighted people into work through training and employment services.

In September, RNIB sparked anger from campaigners for inclusive education after it announced that it was sponsoring a special school in Coventry to convert into an academy, a decision that was described as a “dark day for inclusion”.

But Heslop said that his personal philosophy – having attended both mainstream and specialist institutions – was that there should be a “mixed economy” of mainstream and special settings, and that he becomes “rather worried” when “dogmatic views” are expressed about inclusion.

Speaking for RNIB, he said such judgments were “terribly finely-balanced” and “on the management agenda constantly” but there was “no sort of religion about this”, with decisions “being dealt with on a very pragmatic basis”.
Government ‘must do more’ on bus access, say MPs

MPs have warned the government that it must do more to address the barriers faced by disabled bus-users.

The Commons transport select committee issued the warning as it published the government’s response to its inquiry into access to public transport for disabled people.

The committee’s inquiry report, published in September, concluded that access was “unacceptably poor”, with improvements planned by the government now being “watered down or abandoned”.

Among its recommendations, the committee called on the government to ensure the phased introduction of audio-visual information systems on all buses over the next 10 years.

But in its response to the report, the Department for Transport (DfT) rejects the recommendation, saying that it does “not at this point intend to legislate to make audio visual systems on buses mandatory”, because it is “loath to impose financial burdens of this kind on the industry”.

It also rejects the committee’s recommendation to implement a disability equality training package for all bus and coach drivers from 2014.

Louise Ellman, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said members were “disappointed” by the rejection of these two recommendations, and do not believe they would be “particularly burdensome on the industry, given the benefits to all passengers”.

She added: “This approach to achieving equal access in bus travel is insufficient by comparison with efforts being made across the rail industry to improve the experience of disabled travellers.

“Nevertheless, measures being taken by train operators are often far from perfect so we shall be watching closely for evidence of improvement.”

DfT also says in its response to the committee’s inquiry report that it has decided not to use powers available in Labour’s Equality Act to force all taxis to be accessible to disabled people, because it claims there are some disabled people for whom existing models of wheelchair-accessible taxis would not be suitable.

It says it prefers to leave such decisions up to local authorities, which can decide for themselves whether all the taxis they license should be wheelchair-accessible.

The committee also welcomed DfT’s decision to commission a survey of Passenger Assist, which provides assistance to disabled people using rail services, another of its recommendations.

And it welcomed the government’s assertion that changes to ticket office opening hours “should mean no reduction overall” in services to disabled passengers, and should even deliver an improvement in some cases.
Appeal court delivers second setback to coalition’s welfare reforms

Campaigners are celebrating another victory over the government’s welfare reform programme after the court of appeal agreed with a tribunal’s landmark ruling that the “fitness for work” test discriminates against some disabled people.

The latest victory comes only weeks after the same court quashed the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund in 2015.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was appealing against a ruling that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) discriminates against people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism, as they often have problems filling in forms, seeking additional evidence, explaining their condition, and answering questions.

Despite the victory, the two claimants – who both have mental health conditions – will now have to return to the upper tribunal so that it can determine how DWP should address the discrimination.

Their case is being driven by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), which was formed in 2010 by incapacity benefit claimants worried about the programme to use the WCA to assess their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.

One of MHRN’s founder members said the victory was “excellent news”, but she added: “We don’t know if it will result in any changes being made. No doubt DWP will do everything they can to avoid making changes. Certainly it is a moral victory if nothing else.”

She added: “We want them to stop sending out messages that this is about benefit fraud. It is not about benefit fraud, it is about taking benefits away from people who are simply not able to work.

“We want them to stop the lies and we want them to stop the test.”

She added: “I think it is a very important victory because, from MHRN’s point-of-view, it has given us a voice in the sense that people are listening to us and what we have to say.

“It also means the government cannot continue to argue that this process is fair. They simply cannot argue that.

“It is also very important in lifting the spirits of people who have been kicked into the ground and kicked in the teeth on a daily basis.”

The two claimants were supported by Mind, Rethink, the National Autistic Society, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

They argued in court that where ESA applicants have a mental health condition, DWP should obtain medical evidence from their doctor or psychiatric team at every stage of the process, or justify why they had not done so.

The tribunal had urged the government to trial this process, and then return to court for a hearing that would decide whether it would be a reasonable adjustment for DWP to make to the WCA process.

Instead, the government appealed against the tribunal’s findings that the WCA caused “substantial disadvantage” to people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and autism.

DWP also argued that the two claimants did not have the right to bring the case because they themselves had not been adversely affected by the WCA.

The court of appeal rejected both of these points, but it did find that it was not for the tribunal to determine what sort of measures should be put in place to assist claimants.

Ravi Low-Beer, the claimants’ solicitor, of the Public Law Project, said: “It is regrettable that the government chose to appeal against the tribunal’s finding that people with mental health problems are disadvantaged by the current system, rather than take the steps necessary to improve it.

“Now that the court of appeal has upheld the tribunal’s finding, we sincerely hope that the government will take immediate steps to improve the system.”

A DWP spokesman said: “This is a complicated judgment on an appeal against an interim judgment by the upper tribunal and we are now considering our next steps.

“The WCA was introduced in 2008 by the previous government. We have made – and continue to make – significant improvements to the WCA process for people with mental health conditions since then.”

Thousands of people with mental distress have been found unfairly fit for work following their WCA, and while many go on to win an appeal against this decision, some are unable to cope with an appeal, or experience a relapse in their health as a result of the process.

Many MHRN members have themselves had relapses, episodes of self-harm and suicide attempts, and have needed higher levels of medication and even hospitalisation in the lead-up to their reassessments.
WOW petition hits target… and is now heading for parliament

MPs are set to debate the combined impact of the government’s cuts to disability benefits and services early in the new year, after a petition led by disabled campaigners hit its 100,000 target with just days to spare.

Supporters now face a battle to persuade MPs to back the petition publicly, in order to persuade a committee that there is enough support for the debate to take place in the main Commons chamber, rather than the smaller, lower-profile Westminster Hall.

The WOW petition, spearheaded by the disabled comedian and activist Francesca Martinez, reached its target on 30 November, just 12 days before the cut-off point.

This meant the petition could be put before the Commons backbench committee, which hears bids every week from MPs keen for debates on certain subjects to take place in parliamentary time put aside for backbenchers.

The focus of the WOW petition is the need for a cumulative impact assessment on the cuts and other reforms affecting disabled people, an immediate end to the much-criticised work capability assessment, and an independent inquiry into welfare reform.

“Rick B”, one of the originators of the petition, said: “In July 2012, I almost died because of how the government treated me. Many have not been as fortunate.

“Another founder of the campaign, John Dyer, sadly passed away in November before we reached 100,000 signatures.

“So we are resolute to take this democratic mandate and pursue the cause of making justice for sick and disabled people and carers a reality.”

Michelle Maher, another originator of the petition, added: “I became involved because of my cousin, who had been living with Parkinson’s for five years, with osteoarthritis and diabetes.

“Her claim for DLA [disability living allowance] took 18 months to settle and she was in sheltered accommodation when she had to attend a tribunal. She was frightened, stressed and confused by the process. Inhumane.”

The Labour MP John McDonnell, backed by party colleague Grahame Morris, appeared before the backbench committee this week to put the case for a debate on the WOW petition.

Although the committee’s chair, Natascha Engel, confirmed that a debate would take place, she said they would need to provide “quite a long list” of cross-party MPs to justify holding it in the main chamber.

Earlier, McDonnell had attended a meeting in a parliamentary committee room, held by WOW petition organisers and attended by several other Labour MPs.

McDonnell had told the disabled activists attending the meeting that he wanted the debate to be held in January, and in the main Commons chamber, and that he was hoping to gain cross-party support.

He said that the government’s refusal to carry out a cumulative impact assessment “beggars belief”, and added: “We are trying to shape the debate from here on in so no political party can avoid addressing the issue.”

McDonnell told the meeting that direct action and lobbying of MPs would have to continue, despite the petition’s success.

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the government did not want to carry out a cumulative impact assessment because it would expose the pressure every public service was under and “show an absolutely disastrous situation for disabled people”.

Green said that Labour might not agree with every one of the demands in the petition but she said there was “a lot of ground for a… conversation”.

She said the petition was a “really strong statement” on the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and showed there were a lot of disabled people who will “just not tolerate being the whipping boys of this government”.

Paula Peters, a disabled activist, said campaigners needed to pressure Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs to attend the debate, perhaps by attending their constituency surgeries.
UN’s international day provides stage for ‘independent living rallying cry’

A new report that reveals how benefit cuts are undermining independent living for disabled people is “a rallying cry for choice, independence and equality”, according to a disabled peer.

The launch of What Price Independent Lives, by Habinteg housing association, was among the disability-related events that marked 3 December, the UN’s annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities(IDPD).

The report says that local rules for exemption from the so-called bedroom tax have created a new postcode lottery for disabled people, reinforcing the barriers they face if they want to move house, and deepening inequality.

And it says that two-thirds of Habinteg’s tenants who have been affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people, and only a third of this group had been exempted from paying by local authorities, six months after the new rules came into force.

Most tenants affected by the bedroom tax – which financially punishes those seen as under-occupying their social housing – were preparing to “stay and pay” because the shortage of accessible properties made it impossible to downsize.

The disabled Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, vice-chair of the all party parliamentary disability group, said: “Habinteg’s new research provides a rallying cry for choice, independence and equality.

“Independent living is a right not a privilege. The way in which the bedroom tax cuts the incomes of disabled people at a stroke and impinges on their ability to live independently is something that must be challenged.”

Meanwhile, the government used IDPD to announce that six professional institutions, representing architects, town planners, surveyors, engineers and facilities managers, have pledged to try to change their curricula so inclusive design becomes a requirement of all their accredited college and university courses on the built environment.

The pledge is part of the Built Environment Professional Education Project, which is being funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Greater London Authority and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

DWP said the success of London 2012 – seen as the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games ever – had “stimulated a drive to ensure that all buildings, places and spaces are designed inclusively in future”.

Disability Wales used IDPD to raise concerns about the impact of government reforms and cuts on disabled people’s right to independent living.

It talked of the “devastating impact” of the cuts imposed on disabled people in Wales through the Welfare Reform Act, and pointed out that disabled people were also facing frequent harassment and bullying.

And it called for greater access to centres for independent living for disabled people in Wales.

The theme of this year’s IDPD was Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all, and the English Federation of Disability Sport used the day to launch Access for All: Opening Doors, a guide to improving physical access to sports clubs.

The guide aims to be a “starting point” for clubs, identifying the main areas of physical access and signposting readers to further information and support.

The West of England Centre for Inclusive Living combined a celebration of IDPD with UK Disability History Month as it held an event in Bristol, examining how the perception of disabled people has evolved from the middle ages to today.

One talk, by historian Dr Irina Metzler, examined how disabled people lived in the medieval period, while another, by author and campaigner Eva Fielding-Jackson, looked at the birth of the disability rights movement in the 1960s.

Other events by DPOs included a series of workshops and talks around inclusion, organised by Disability North, while South Yorkshire Centre for Independent Living hosted a talk by Paralympian Craig McCann at its annual general meeting.

Meanwhile, a new user-led website endorsed by the world-renowned disabled physicist Professor Stephen Hawking was launched on IDPD.

Euan’s Guide, created by wheelchair-user Euan MacDonald, aims to provide venue access listings, with reviews written for and by disabled people.

Hawking said the site would make a “huge difference for people across the UK, giving them a reliable source of information to help plan their leisure, personal and business activities”.

He said: “There is a severe lack of quality information about disabled access in the UK, particularly services giving the end-user’s perspective.

“For this reason it can be very difficult for disabled people and their carers to find out where they can go to enjoy many of the everyday activities most people take for granted, such as visiting a coffee shop or going out for a drink with friends.

“As a result, despite all of the legislation supporting accessibility, disabled people are effectively excluded from many mainstream venues and activities, for fear of being faced with inadequate facilities.”
Thomson’s twin taxi payment bid reveals ‘discriminatory’ holiday policy

A disabled tourist has criticised a holiday company’s “discriminatory” policy after it tried to charge him nearly £150 for a return taxi journey from an airport because its coach was unable to take his wheelchair.

Thomson had told Conrad Tokarczyk that a coach that would transfer him from the airport in Tenerife to his package holiday resort was accessible to his wheelchair.

But three days before his departure from the UK in July, Thomson told him the situation had changed and the coach was not accessible after all, so he would have to travel instead by adapted taxi, and pay an extra £72 each way.

On his return to the UK, he spent hours using Thomson’s premium rate complaints line, trying to resolve the problem.

The company eventually agreed to pay for just one of the two taxi journeys, but when he said he had contacted legal firm Unity Law – which specialises in disability discrimination cases – Thomson finally agreed to pay for both taxi fares.

Despite the u-turn, Thomson insisted it had made an exception in paying for his taxi and that the policy would stay in place.

Thomson’s chief executive, David Burling, insisted in a letter to Tokarczyk that his company did not discriminate against any of its customers, and there would be no change to the policy.

Tokarczyk, from Middlesex, said: “I found Thomson made the entire process exhausting, probably to discourage people from challenging them. I had to send numerous emails.

“I feel obliged to act on behalf of those who may be elderly or those who simply don’t have the stamina for such a long, drawn-out process.

“I don’t see why a disabled person should have to pay extra because Thomson cannot accommodate an essential mobility aid.”

A Thomson spokesman said the company was “sorry” to hear of the problems Tokarczyk had had with his transfer, and he confirmed that Thomson did charge disabled passengers in such situations and had been intending to charge him for the two taxi journeys.

But he added: “We do not discriminate against any people, not matter what they are.”

He added, in a statement: “Unfortunately, on this occasion, the transfer coach was unable to accommodate Mr Tokarczyk’s wheelchair.

“Thomson covered the costs of private transfers for Mr Tokarczyk and offered a voucher towards a future holiday [£20] as a gesture of goodwill.

“Thomson takes its responsibilities with regards to our customers’ welfare seriously and we’d like to reassure customers that issues of this type are very rare.”

He insisted that Thomson’s Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRM) policy on “in resort transfers for disabled passengers” was “in line with industry standards and legislation governing overseas operations”.

He said the PRM policy had been “recently reviewed and applies to all Thomson package holidays”.

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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