So how long has it been? Well actually it’s been three months since I wrote my last blog. I don’t know whether you’ve missed it but I’ve certainly missed putting it together? The reason for this involuntary absence, as many of you know, was because my house was flooded back in February and we had to move out. After a number of interesting temporary accommodation experiences and on-going administrative foul ups by the insurers the refurbishment work was finally completed at the end of August and you can imagine the relief when we moved back in. Unfortunately our joy was short-lived because when we turned on the lights the house fuse board blew and cut off all the power! Thankfully this was quickly remedied and all was well again. While all the rebuilding work was going on we took the opportunity to have the office refurbished and had gas central heating fitted, previously we were all electric. So some good did come out of total disruption.
Life was just beginning to get back to normal when in mid-September I got a got call from a complete stranger who told me that my youngest daughter had been hit by a car. She was out shopping at a local supermarket and was just loading the boot of her car, and had her five-month-old baby in her arms, when she was hit from behind. She suffered multiple fractures to her ankle but thankfully the baby was uninjured. You can imagine the shock! We then spent the next couple of weeks trundling backwards and forwards to the hospital while we waited for the surgeon to decide how best to treat the injury.
I haven’t been in a hospital for sometime and watching the modern NHS close up was an interesting experience. Our daughter’s treatment by the emergency services and the Accident and Emergency team at the hospital was superb but once she was admitted on to a ward we got a somewhat different picture. A number of administrative errors meant that no consultant was allocated to our daughter’s case. This had the knock-on effect that nobody could take any decisions and so we all waited around while the medical teams argued among themselves as to who was responsible for what and what would eventually be done, so much for concerns about bed blocking. What I also noticed was that whenever we visited five of six nurses were gathered around the nursing station chatting to each other and no one was talking to any of the patients.
Car parking charges were exorbitant, and much has been written on the subject, but no one seems to have mentioned the complete lack of Wi-Fi or Internet connection. Every patient had a mobile phone; many had an IPad or equivalent. Why not drop car-parking charges and install Wi-Fi and charge for it? That would do much to cheer up patients. We tried to hire a television to alleviate the boredom but it wouldn’t work, as our daughters room was too close to the radiology department so the signal was disrupted! So with no telly and no Wi-Fi she had to resort to Puzzler magazines and books, not the end of the world. But it is 2014 and most of us communicate using the Internet. Not, it would seem if you’re in an NHS hospital!
I’m glad to say that our daughter is now home but has to use a wheelchair for the next couple of months as her ankle heals. She is finding being a wheelchair user in an inaccessible house somewhat difficult and for the same reason I can’t visit her. The good news is that we do have an accessible house with a shower so she comes over to us once or twice a week to make good use of it. All things considered not a great year but compared to many people’s lives a walk in the park.
Highlights of the past week for me? Chairing Lloyds Banking Group’s Access Network annual conference in Edinburgh and interviewing Alastair Campbell at the launch of the Business Disability Forum’s Guide “Managing Difficult Conversations” http://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/training-and-events/events/our-latest-events/managing-difficult-conversations-launch-event/
It’s good to be back online and I hope you find this weeks news items of interest. Drop me a line if you have the time.
‘Dreadful’ access means Houses of Parliament ‘not fit for purpose’, says disabled peer
A peer campaigning to become the first disabled president of the Liberal Democrats has complained that the debating chamber of the House of Lords is so inaccessible that sometimes only three wheelchair-users can speak in the same debate.
There are believed to be at least six peers who usually or always use a wheelchair, but only three microphones that can be used by wheelchair-users, and space is so cramped in the chamber that there is often not enough room for them to make way for fresh speakers.
She told Disability News Service at her party’s annual conference in Glasgow that access in the Palace of Westminster was “dreadful” and that the building was “not fit for purpose”.
Even if all of the vital improvement work was carried out at once – and parliament moved temporarily to a new venue, while fire safety, heating, drainage, ventilation, electrical, asbestos clearance and other work was carried out – it would still take an estimated 10 years to complete the upgrade, and up to 10 years longer if parliamentary authorities closed it bit by bit while the work was carried out.
Baroness Brinton even described how some peers refuse to move their feet to allow her to enter or leave the chamber. On one occasion, she had to appeal to the chief whip when one female peer refused to let her through.
She said: “I have had problems in getting out of the Lords chamber when it is full. It is extremely difficult and some of the elderly peers will not move.
“If all [the wheelchair-users in the Lords] wanted to speak [in a debate] we would be in trouble.
“Even when you are in there you have to run the gauntlet of peers who will not move, either to stand up and move aside or swing their feet round.
“It is not fit for purpose. People on the benches can squeeze up or sit on the steps. That’s not possible in a wheelchair.”
On one occasion, she and her fellow disabled peer Baroness Masham were left stranded after a late meeting when a lift broke down and a member of security staff – until eventually put straight by a police officer – told them there was nothing that could be done because it was “not an emergency”.
Because of the way they are paid – they are not treated as employed or self-employed, but instead are paid an allowance – disabled peers cannot claim Access to Work support, and nor can their staff.
This means Baroness Brinton has to rely on the Lords authorities to fund the taxis she needs to travel to and from Westminster, and any other adjustments she needs to do her work.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, another peer who uses a wheelchair, was less critical of the access arrangements.
She said: “I think because I’ve been a wheelchair-user for many years I’ve a different take on the building.
“I love the history and the character and I’ve only known it in my chair. I can get to every part of the building and there has been a lot of thought to the disabled visitor experience.
“Having grown up knowing only one or two accessible toilets in London I’m pretty pleased with what we have in the Palace. It may not be perfect but it’s what we have.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson sits on the restoration and renewal committee, which she said was “considering many of these issues”.
She said she had found other peers “courteous” although she admitted that “perhaps they don’t always move very quickly at times”.
She also accepted that there would be a potential problem if all the wheelchair-users in the Lords wanted to speak in a debate, but she added: “If I just want to listen then I sit on the steps of the throne, where I quite like the view of the chamber.”
Her fellow disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, said that although “not the best in terms of access”, there was the compensation of “being surrounded by beautiful and historic wonder”.
She said: “Personally, I would hate to move to a modern, albeit more accessible, building, but perhaps that’s the historian in me.”
She said patience was essential in dealing with some peers, “especially the very elderly members who are very disabled themselves – although often don’t admit it”, who “may not act as thoughtfully as one might in a mainstream job modern environment”.
She said the limited space could be frustrating, but that applied to every one of more than 800 peers, and not just those who were disabled.
Baroness Campbell added: “In many ways, the wheelchair-users generally get the opportunity to sit in the chamber and speak when others struggle.
“Those with mobility issues who find difficulty walking or standing at length are more disadvantaged than the wheelchair-users.
“I have now been in the Lords for over six years and have never lost an opportunity to speak because the three spaces for wheelchairs are being used.
“We are all very conscious of having to accommodate one another, so that we can all speak, and if we are not speaking imminently, we can move to the throne end of the chamber where everyone gets a better view.”
But she agreed with Baroness Brinton that fellow peers sometimes do not move out of the way when wheelchair-users want to enter or leave the chamber.
She said: “It is especially tricky when you have a large wheelchair. I think this could be made easier if an announcement was made by the leader of the House, rather than our individual appeals.”
Baroness Campbell added: “Perhaps I’m just getting soft in my old age, but I think the culture of self-regulation and respect for one another does make it a lot easier to rub along and include one another.”
And she said the situation at Westminster was “definitely an improvement” on some of her previous employers.
She said the House of Lords authorities had installed a toilet that all disabled people can use, which includes a changing table and hoist, provided her with an office on the main floor of the building where she can lie down and rest on busy days, and allowed her to take a personal assistant into the chamber to help her speak in debates.
She said: “Now, one might say, of course, that’s the least you could expect. But I did not get such accommodations from my previous employers.
“It’s not perfect, but in the scheme of things and compared to my previous places of work, it’s pretty good and will improve over time, I am sure.”
A House of Lords spokesman said there were positions in the Lords chamber for up to six wheelchairs and that door-keepers “assist with the co-ordination of using the microphones available, enabling those peers in wheelchairs who wish to speak to be in the right place at the right time”.
He said that a Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster had been established “to tackle the significant work that is required”, with an independent appraisal of options for the work underway.
He added: “All lifts on the estate have continued to age and so an estate-wide lift refurbishment programme has recently begun, designed to eliminate the risk of lift failure, especially those located on business critical routes.
“It is anticipated that the Restoration and Renewal Programme will bring significant benefits, among them a more open, inclusive and accessible parliament, including numerous improvements to disabled access.”
And he said that equality consultations with internal and external individuals and groups “will be held at different stages of the programme to ensure full consideration is given to the equality impact of any future renovation work”.
Liberal Democrat party conference: Ministers refuse to condemn Osborne
Two senior Liberal Democrat ministers have refused to criticise the Conservative chancellor for misleading voters about how he would protect disabled people from his planned benefits freeze.
Both Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, and Steve Webb, the pensions minister, refused to condemn last week’s announcement by George Osborne.
Alexander and Osborne have worked closely together at the Treasury for the last four years.
Osborne was accused last week of misleading voters, after he pledged that disability benefits would not be affected by a two-year “freeze” on working-age social security.
He told a delighted Conservative party conference in Birmingham that most working-age benefits would have to be frozen for two years from April 2016 – if the Tories won the next election – but that “pensioner benefits and disability benefits will be excluded”.
Disability News Service (DNS) eventually confirmed that all disabled people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) would be hit by the freeze, with only the support group ESA top-up excluded.
This week, Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, attacked his coalition partners for choosing to “single out the working-age poor to bear the brunt of the final years of deficit reduction, while refusing to ask the super-rich to make a single additional contribution”.
When DNS asked Alexander after a fringe meeting what he thought about Osborne’s announcement, he said the party had “made our views pretty clear” during the week.
But when asked again about Osborne misleading voters on whether disabled people would be affected by the benefits freeze, Alexander said: “I am sorry, I have got to think about this dinner I am going to. I am sorry.”
There was a similar response from pensions minister Steve Webb, the only Liberal Democrat in the Department for Work and Pensions, who said: “We as a party do not think the freeze is the right way to go.”
But he also appeared to defend Osborne, saying that “a lot of these announcements are made in shorthand” – even though DNS pointed out that Osborne’s own press release failed to clarify the impact on ESA claimants – before declining to comment further.
So far, the party itself has refused to comment further on the impact of the benefits freeze, and whether Osborne misled voters about protecting disabled people.
Scope pledges independence for Disability Now, despite planned job losses
The charity Scope has pledged to protect the editorial independence of its Disability Now website, despite telling three of its four staff that they are likely to be made redundant.
Many of the tasks currently carried out by Disability Now (DN) employees will in future be carried out by Scope members of staff, if the plans are given the go-ahead.
Three members of DN staff – two of whom are disabled – have been told they are at risk of redundancy under the plans, which would leave the disabled editor, former BBC executive Ian Macrae, as the sole employee.
DN was established as a newspaper in 1984, has always been published by Scope, and is based at Scope’s head office in north London.
It built a reputation as a campaigning publication, on issues such as the need for winter fuel payments for working-age disabled people, calling for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis and for more disabled journalists in mainstream media, and as a member of the Baywatch campaign, which fought the abuse of accessible parking bays in supermarkets.
The monthly newspaper received a major redesign and relaunch in 2007 as a magazine, in a bid to reverse a flagging circulation, at the same time that Macrae became its first disabled editor.
But it was hit hard by the recession and fierce competition from other disability magazines and websites, and saw its circulation continue to fall until it became an online-only publication in 2012.
In 2012-13, DN cost Scope £300,000. Although that net cost fell to £160,000 in 2013-14, the website only generated about £60,000 in advertising revenue last year.
Despite its financial problems, it has continued to pride itself on being editorially independent of Scope, and on the number of disabled people it employs and uses as freelance journalists.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, said the changes were “not in any way challenging the independence of DN”, which would continue with “complete editorial independence” from Scope.
But he said the charity had decided that there were “more effective ways of delivering DN”, including plans to stop accepting advertising on the website.
Hawkes added: “It is a proposal rather than a decision. It is a proposal that has been put forward. If an alternative proposal is put forward, we will consider [it].”
Mark Atkinson, Scope’s director of external affairs, said a consultation on the charity’s plans for DN would end on 31 October.
He said that many administrative tasks currently carried out by DN were set to be transferred to Scope staff, but he insisted that no-one but Macrae would have any editorial input.
He said: “I am pretty confident that all the journalistic and content-driven aspects done by those four people can be picked up by the editor.
“I don’t think there will be a compromise on editorial judgements and any compromise at all on the editorial independence.
“I don’t propose that any other staff at Scope will be making editorial judgements or generating any editorial content.”
He added: “We genuinely believe that DN continues to remain important to Scope, it absolutely does. We want to make sure it has a strong and successful future.”
He said Scope was considering re-introducing an independent editorial advisory board for DN.
DN says it is the UK’s leading website “for, about and by disabled people” and aims to “accurately reflect and present the lives, experiences, views, opinions and lifestyle choices of disabled people, which are often misrepresented in mainstream media”, and “to call to account those whose actions and policies have an impact on disabled people”.
NOTE: John Pring, editor of Disability News Service, who wrote this article, is a former deputy editor of Disability Now and was made redundant from that position by Scope in 2008
Next generation text relay ‘should lead to quicker, smoother calls’
Deaf people and those with speech and hearing impairments have welcomed the launch of a new service that should make their telephone conversations faster and more fluent.
The new service has been developed and launched by BT – which is the first provider to gain approval from the communications watchdog Ofcom for a “next generation” text relay service – but is available to customers of all the UK’s other landline and mobile phone providers.
The Next Generation Text Service (NGTS) aims to provide long-awaited improvements to the text relay service, which has been allowing people with hearing or speech impairments to communicate over the telephone for more than 20 years.
Under the text relay system, an assistant in a call centre acts as an intermediary to convert speech to text, and text into speech, for the two people in conversation.
The launch follows a decision by Ofcom in 2012 that there must be an improved text relay service in the UK, to allow “more natural conversations and easier access on a wider range of mainstream devices”, such as laptops, tablet computers and smartphones.
The new service allows interruptions for the first time, because it permits the user to hear the other person’s voice and read the text of their conversation at the same time, without the need to say or type “go ahead” after each part of a conversation.
Ofcom said the conversation “flows much more quickly and naturally as a result”.
Among other improvements, users will no longer have to use a textphone – costing about £300 – to make a call, with the option to access the service instead on smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.
And relay users can now link their landline and mobile number to a TextNumber, a standard 11-digit phone number that will automatically bring the relay service into every call, so eradicating the need to dial the 18002 prefix before every telephone number and even to know in advance that the recipient of the call is a text relay-user.
Users of the relay service will continue to be charged at the same rate as a standard telephone call, while disabled users are entitled to a price reduction because of the additional time taken by relay calls.
Christopher Jones, chair of UK Council on Deafness’s deaf access to communication group, said there was little difference in speed between the old and new generation systems for those typing and receiving text.
But he said that being able to use computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones, and make and receive calls when away from home, would make a “real difference”.
And for those who use voice carry over (VCO) technology – which allows users to speak using their own voice but read the responses in text – the new system will be “much smoother and less cumbersome”, said Jones.
VCO-users previously had to keep switching between voice and text modes, and so could not interrupt the other person.
But NGTS enables a VCO-user to talk and interrupt, making the system “faster and smoother compared to the old text relay”, although the speed of the text part will still be subject to the typing speed of the relay assistant.
Jones said there were still “teething issues”, as with all new technologies, particularly around downloading the NGTS mobile phone app and linking it with a chosen telephone number or numbers.
He said: “Once this is done, things seem to run fine.”
He said these problems could possibly be solved by “better instructions, perhaps more graphical or even video clips of the steps required”.
Disabled campaigner Chris Channon, who currently uses email to contact people and organisations because of his communication impairment, said NGTS would “come in really useful for ‘real-time’ interaction”.
He said his initial reaction when heard of the new service was “hooray!”.
He said: “I never used the previous text relay service, as it relied on personal computers or specific non-portable keyboards and 11 digit numbers.
“NGTS addresses both these issues as it can be used on mobile devices via a free app with text relay numbers being linked to an individual’s mobile number.
“If it does what it says on the tin then I will definitely be signing up to NGTS in the very near future.”
Mike Aston, a senior architectural technologist with Warwickshire County Council, who has been taking part in BT’s trials of NGTS, said the new system had “really exceeded my expectations and certainly makes life a lot easier for deaf people”.
He praised its flexibility, and said he believed the new service “certainly enhances employment prospects for the deaf in the future”.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said: “The enhanced service delivers real improvements to the text relay experience, allowing users to have conversations more easily and fluently.
“We’ll monitor the performance of the new service to ensure it meets our expected standards.”
The launch had been due in April but was delayed after BT’s testing revealed technical problems relating to the connection of emergency calls.
Ofcom is investigating the reasons for this delay and expects to publish its conclusions later this year.
Disabled tourist’s second court victory ‘secures protection for millions’
A judge has ruled that services provided abroad by British tour operators are subject to disability discrimination laws, ensuring protection for millions of disabled tourists.
The ruling at Sheffield county court over-ruled a previous judge who found that holiday giant Thomas Cook was not liable for any discrimination once disabled tourist Janice Campbell stepped foot outside Britain.
The victory – which was funded by legal aid – was Campbell’s second successful claim of unlawful discrimination against Thomas Cook, both for holidays at the same hotel in Sousse, Tunisia.
In the latest case, in 2012, she had been told by Thomas Cook that her hotel’s swimming pool would be out of action, but that she would be able to use the pool in a neighbouring hotel.
On arrival at her hotel, she found this arrangement had been cancelled and the only option was to use a third pool which was too far away to be accessible.
She said: “Swimming was a very important part of my holiday. I found it extremely frustrating when Thomas Cook refused to do anything to resolve my complaint.”
After trying unsuccessfully to settle this complaint, she sued Thomas Cook for unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.
The trial judge found that Thomas Cook had not made the simple reasonable adjustments of either arranging accessible taxis or asking about the cost of using the neighbouring hotel’s pool, and so Campbell should be paid £3,500 compensation for unlawful discrimination.
But he concluded that the company did not have to pay because the discrimination took place outside the UK.
But the appeal judge, His Honour Judge Robinson, has now found that the Equality Act did protect her from discrimination on her holiday, as there was “sufficient connection with Great Britain”.
Campbell, from Sheffield, said: “I am very pleased this case confirms that disabled people are protected against discrimination on holiday.
“I can’t believe that Thomas Cook is spending so much money fighting in court for the right to discriminate.”
Schona Jolly, of London’s Cloisters chambers – where Campbell’s barristers, Catherine Casserley and Sally Cowen, are based – said: “This is the first time that a court has fully considered the application of the Equality Act 2010 to services provided outside the UK.
“It means that service-providers need to respond to the needs of their disabled customers both inside the UK and outside.
“If they do not, they may find themselves liable to court proceedings under the act.”
This is now the second court case Campbell has won against Thomas Cook for holidays at the same hotel in Tunisia.
She secured £7,500 compensation last year over Thomas Cook’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for her in 2011, when its staff refused to find her somewhere to sit or even to hold her place in the queue as she and 1,600 other tourists were being evacuated during the civil uprising.
She later described how she had suffered pain and distress because of being forced to stand for long periods.
When she told Thomas Cook staff that she couldn’t stand much longer, she was told there was nothing they could do and would be left behind if she left the queue.
The court ruled that they could have just found her a chair or held her place in the queue while she sat down.
Thomas Cook is currently appealing this judgement because it argues that the Equality Act did not apply as European Union regulations on air passengers with reduced mobility were in force, even though the incident took place in Tunisia.
Douglas Johnson, of Sheffield Citizens Advice and Law Centre, which supported Campbell, said the case was “good news for the millions of disabled tourists, as it shows they are protected from discrimination by law”.
He said: “We hope this will encourage tour operators to make sure the needs of disabled tourists are provided for when on holiday.”
Johnson added: “This important case shows how legal aid funding can bring benefits to many thousands of people.”
A Thomas Cook spokeswoman said of the latest case: “Thomas Cook are sorry that Mrs Campbell had cause to complain about her holiday to Tunisia.
“We are currently considering the full details of the court judgement.”
Liberal Democrat party conference: Clegg vows mental health will be a top priority
The deputy prime minister’s promise to make mental health one of his party’s top policy priorities in fighting the next general election has sparked praise and anger from disabled campaigners.
Nick Clegg said mental health would be “smack bang on the front page of our next manifesto”, as one of a “small number of top priorities”.
Although some campaigners praised the move, others pointed out that mental health services have suffered under the coalition’s funding cuts.
Clegg said he had asked his first parliamentary question as an MP on the “second-class status given to mental health in the NHS”, and had “campaigned to end the Cinderella treatment of mental health services ever since”.
But he also said that he wanted to address the stigma felt by those with mental health conditions.
He told the party in his keynote speech to its annual conference in Glasgow: “I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at the school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety or depression as the mum who’s explaining how she sprained her ankle.”
He also announced that the coalition would introduce national waiting time targets for mental health servicesfor the first time, from 2015-16.
He pledged treatment within six weeks for 75 per cent of people referred to the government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme; treatment within two weeks for more than 50 per cent of people experiencing a first episode of psychosis; and a £30 million investment to help people in crisis access effective support in acute hospitals.
Clegg said: “Labour introduced waiting times in physical health – we will do the same for the many people struggling with conditions that you often can’t see, that we often don’t talk about, but which are just as serious.”
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat minister for care and support, had earlier told the conference that it was “both morally wrong and economically stupid” that people with mental ill health get such a “raw deal”.
He said there was an “institutional bias” against mental health, and spoke about the case of former world boxing champion Frank Bruno, who told him of the “acute embarrassment and humiliation” of having three police cars arriving at his home when he had a mental health crisis.
Reaction to Clegg’s speech on social media was mixed.
One campaigner, @Quinonostante, said on Twitter: “A few electoral platitudes from #Clegg cannot convince me that they would affect real change.
Labour councillor Rodney Bates, @RodneyBates1, said: “Not a fan of Nick Clegg but any politician in any party who wants to talk about increasing resources for mental health is worth a listen.”
And @newapproach tweeted: “Nick Clegg will promise better #mh services in his speech today. How I wish I could believe him!”
Hamish Armstrong, @hraarmstrong, summed up many of the tweets when he wrote: “Completely agree with @nick_clegg over #mentalhealth. Problem is I don’t believe what he says anymore #liar #LibDems@LibDems #election2015.”
And writing on Disability Now website, disabled academic Ruth Patrick described Clegg’s speech as “gutsy”, but said it was “the coalition government which Clegg is a part of that has presided over real term reductions in the mental health budget”.
She said her biggest problem with the speech was the coalition’s “punitive social security reforms”, which had “increased the strain, anxiety and stress on many thousands of individuals and households, with negative consequences for the mental health of some of the most vulnerable in society”.
Although Lamb’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference was strongly focused on health care, rather than social care, he described how – thanks to his agreement between 20 national organisations on standards in mental health crisis care – there had been a rapid drop in the number of people in mental health crisis who ended up in police cells.
He also announced that the entire health and social care budgets would be pooled by 2018, under a Liberal Democrat government, although it would be left to local areas how to carry this out.
And he announced a series of measures to help carers, including a new annual carers bonus of £250, and an increase in the amount someone can earn before losing their carer’s allowance to £150 a week.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com