These long gaps between Blogs are unacceptable and I’m going to rectify matters in 2015 but as most of you who read this know, it has been an interesting year with lots of personal distractions!
The past week, however, has seen a return to more ‘normal’ activities, I’ve been involved in the celebrations surrounding the UN International Day of Disabled People. It was nice to see several organisations put together, not just a day, but a week of programmes. Workshops, comedy shows, webinars and presentations were much in evidence.
We’ve come a long way from 1976, when the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1981 as the International Year of Disabled People (IYDP). The UK marked this unique event with tea and cakes in a large marquee in Hyde Park and Prince Charles attended and made a speech. Then the General Assembly proclaimed 1983-1992 the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons. This called for a plan of action at national, regional and international levels, with an emphasis on equalisation of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities. The theme of IYDP was “full participation and equality”, defined as the right of persons with disabilities to take part fully in the life and development of their societies, enjoy living conditions equal to those of other citizens, and have an equal share in improved conditions resulting from socio-economic development.
We have seen great progress in achieving some of the objectives mentioned but it is important to remember that there is still a lot to do. International Day is an annual celebration but it is what happens on the other 364 days of the year that really count.
Just a shameless finishing plug! Our book “Why are you pretending to be normal?” is now available as an audiobook. Read by Dave Rees the co-author and with music by Steve Hillman and lyrics by Dave and I, it would make the perfect Christmas present. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Why-Are-Pretending-Normal-Unabridged/dp/B00N9R8LIY/ref=tmm_aud_title_0
Now here’s this weeks’ news.
Lib Dems pick disabled peer as new president
A disabled peer has become the first wheelchair-user to head a major UK political party, after Liberal Democrats elected her to be their next party president.
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, who will take over from MP Tim Farron on 1 January 2015, beat her nearest rival Daisy Cooper by 10,188 votes to 6,138 and now becomes the public face of the party.
She is the first disabled person to head her party and the first wheelchair-user to take such a role in any major UK political party. She has been an occasional wheelchair-user for about three years, but “fairly permanently” for the last year.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) that she felt “daunted” by the responsibility of her new position and was “carrying a weight of expectation”, but believed that her election was a “very significant” moment.
She said: “The old ‘does he take sugar?’ attitude has to continue to be challenged and having a senior politician in a wheelchair with a chronic illness working in a high-profile job, can only be helpful.
“People will have to talk to me and not with anybody who is with me, which is the automatic reaction.”
Baroness Brinton said that – despite the success of The Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, which helps disabled people with the extra costs they face in standing for election as a councillor or MP – there were still discriminatory attitudes “in all the political parties about candidates with disabilities, and that is particularly true about candidates in wheelchairs”.
She said: “Having a high-profile politician in a wheelchair will also start I hope to change the attitude of activists in the parties about people with disabilities doing the job.”
She said her party would also have to ensure that venues where she was meeting people were accessible, including in the run-up to the May 2015 general election.
She said the 14 presidential hustings held by the party across England, Scotland and Wales showed her that understanding of accessibility – particularly about the needs of a user of an electric wheelchair – was “very limited”.
At one of the hustings, she arrived at the venue to find that although the entrance was wheelchair-accessible, the stage was not.
The organiser solved the problem by ensuring the other two candidates spoke from floor-level alongside Baroness Brinton.
She said: “I think that – given the amount of touring around the country that a candidate has to do – a lot of venues will be rethinking their accessibility.
“I will be all over the country over the next four to five months. That is the single clearest benefit for other wheelchair-users, that people will [now] be thinking twice.”
Her election has already had a positive impact close to home, with her party using it to try to persuade its landlord to improve access to its Westminster headquarters in Great George Street.
The party’s new president has already told DNS that she believes the Houses of Parliament are “not fit for purpose” because of “dreadful” access, and should be moved permanently to a more accessible building.
She has even missed a couple of votes in the House of Lords because there is only one lift from the Portcullis House building to its basement, which leads under the main road to the Palace of Westminster, and when the division bell rings for a vote the lift is always full.
Baroness Brinton said she was aware that the Liberal Democrat 2010 general election manifesto had not been well-received by many disabled people, but that there was already “pressure and awareness” within the party for improved disability policies in the 2015 manifesto.
Her election as president “will certainly help” with that, she said.
She also said that she understood that there might be some anger directed at her as the public face of the Liberal Democrats during the general election campaign, because of the coalition’s cuts and reforms to disability benefits and services since 2010.
But she said: “I’m not in the government, I’ve never been a minister, but I am certainly clear that that debate has been going on inside the party as well.
“The party has been very unhappy and if you look at the motions that we had to party conference, which have been passed by the members and therefore are party policy, my response as president is to say, ‘The grassroots of the party are unhappy as well.’
“I hope to be able to say as well that the manifesto will reflect that unhappiness and show what we will do in coalition next time with whoever.”
She pointed to this week’s announcement by the Conservative chancellor George Osborne, in his autumn statement, that there would be substantial future cuts in benefits, which she said was definitely not a Liberal Democrat policy.
And she said that one of the points made to the group drawing up the manifesto – of which she is a member – was that “we have got to get benefits for people with disabilities right, because what has happened over personal independence payment has been shambolic”.
She will be resigning as her party’s health spokeswoman in the Lords later this month to concentrate on her new role.
Baroness Brinton is a former bursar of two Cambridge colleges, a trustee of the United Kingdom Committee of UNICEF, a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and former chair of Cambridgeshire Learning and Skills Council.
She began her working life at the BBC, was later a successful venture capitalist, and now has a particular interest in education, skills and learning.
She created and runs the party’s leadership programme, which aims to increase the number of women, black and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBT MPs.
Her party leader, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said: “She has led the way in promoting diversity in the Liberal Democrats through the leadership programme and brings decades of political experience to the role.
“She will be a powerful advocate for grassroots activists in what will be a crucial election year and I look forward to working with her.”
The Autumn statement offers two measures that will benefit disabled people.
Osborne announced a £10 million-a-year measure to extend the employment allowance to employers of personal assistants and other care and support workers.
According to Disability Rights UK (DR UK), this means that a family will be able to employ a care worker on a salary of up to £22,500 and pay no employer national insurance contributions.
Sue Bott, DR UK’s director of policy and development, said she was “delighted” with the move.
She said: “It struck us as very unfair when last April the government introduced the £2,000 annual national insurance contribution employment allowance to small employers and specifically excluded disabled people employing personal assistants.
“Disability Rights UK and the Low Income Tax Reform Group have been lobbying to right this unfairness. I’m glad we have been listened to.”
There was also an extra £60 million between 2015-16 and 2018-19 for the Access for All programme, enough to improve access at about 20 rail stations.
Disability News Service reported in April that the government had cut the budget for Access for All from £370 million over its first 10 years (from 2006-2015) to just £103 million over the next four (2015-16 to 2018-19), across England, Scotland and Wales.
The new money will mean this funding increases to about £160 million in the four years to 2018-19, a figure more in line with the first 10 years of the scheme.
Lianna Etkind, campaigns and outreach co-ordinator for the user-led accessible transport charity Transport for All, said: “In an autumn statement that is mostly bad news for disabled people, this investment is a glimmer of progress.
“Improving station access helps disabled people get to work, travel to see friends and family, and play a full part in public life.”
Pat Onions, from Pat’s Petition, said these “small grants of money” were “extremely welcome”, but she added: “We have been here before. A small grant can be used as a sweetener to distract attention from other savage cuts.
“And the more this [autumn statement] is dissected, the more it is obvious that welfare is going to take a massive hit.”
Access to Work crisis: DWP faces legal action over secret guidance
Disabled people are taking legal action in a bid to force the government to publish secret guidance that decides who is eligible for employment support under its under-fire Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
Disability News Service (DNS) has run a string of reports this year about disabled people concerned about administrative problems, delays and cuts to their AtW funding.
And in October, Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was told by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee that the government’s AtW reforms had led to a huge backlog of claims, “appalling” administration, and rude and poorly-trained advisers.
Much of the opposition to changes introduced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has come from the campaign group Stop Changes to Access to Work, whose members are Deaf and disabled people and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters.
Now lawyers at Leigh Day are taking legal action – on behalf of the campaign – against work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith over the lack of guidance and the “inconsistent, unlawful and opaque application” of AtW policy.
In a “letter before action”, Leigh Day has challenged Duncan Smith to publish a DWP document which describes the eligibility criteria and the rules applied to AtW claimants.
The document, apparently more than 700 paragraphs long, is not publicly available, although campaigners have been told that it exists.
The letter also raises concerns about the “30-hour rule”, which states that a Deaf or disabled person needing more than 30-hours-a-week AtW support should recruit their own salaried support worker.
If they cannot, AtW will only fund an award for an hourly rate equivalent to a £30,000 salary, a rule which has caused particular problems for Deaf people who use BSL-interpreters.
Although DWP announced in May that the 30-hour rule would be suspended while it carried out a three-month review, there has yet to be any indication of the result of that review.
Leigh Day says this is unlawful, and calls in the letter for funding to be restored at previous levels to all those affected by the 30-hour rule.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the Stop Changes to Access to Work steering group, and an AtW-user, said: “This scheme is key to safeguarding both the social and financial inclusion of disabled people in society.
“The support it provides, such as travel grants, special aids or equipment and support workers, transforms lives and safeguards careers.
“It cannot continue to be applied so haphazardly and in such an opaque manner.”
A Stop Changes to Access to Work spokeswoman said the idea of Deaf and disabled people “achieving in employment and being successful in their own businesses flies against what this government would have you believe: that Deaf and disabled people are scroungers and a drain on society”.
The spokeswoman added: “They would have you believe that interpreters are profiteering from the public purse, rather than being highly-trained, skilled workers performing a vital role.”
Among those hit by the reforms whose stories have been reported by DNS are Jenny Sealey, chief executive and artistic director of Graeae, whose AtW support was cut by more than half, and Craig Crowley, chief executive of the Deaf-led charity Action Deafness and honorary president of UK Deaf Sport.
In September, a Deaf youth worker described how endless problems with the support he is supposed to obtain through AtW had made it impossible to focus on his job.
And in May, DNS reported how an educational farm run by two disabled people for more than 10 yearscould be forced to close after their AtW support was suddenly withdrawn.
Earlier this year, Jeff McWhinney told ITV how he was forced to bring a non-Deaf managing director into his company SignVideo after his AtW support was cut, so he was no longer able to attend networking opportunities in the evenings.
Ministers now have 14 days to respond to the Leigh Day letter before formal legal action is taken in the high court.
Ugo Hayter, from Leigh Day, said: “Access to Work users, who depend on the support provided to them by the scheme, are having their support arbitrarily cut or suspended. This is putting their employment and their businesses at serious risk.
“The secretary of state should now ensure his department deals with this matter urgently. It should publish clear AtW guidance and resolve the many outstanding claims.”
So far, DWP has been unable to comment.
Rights take centre stage in UK on UN’s international day
The launch of a bid to produce a new disabled people’s manifesto for Wales was among events held this week to celebrate the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD).
The launch was held on 3 December by Disability Wales (DW), which wants to develop a manifesto that will influence political parties in the run-up to the Welsh National Assembly elections in 2016.
It follows the success of DW’s Manifesto for Independent Living, which was published ahead of the last assembly elections in 2011 and led to the Welsh government introducing its Framework for Action on Independent Living in 2013.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said: “Much has changed for disabled people since 2011 following the introduction of welfare reform and cuts in public spending, leaving many worse off financially and anxious about losing vital services.
“With disabled people comprising nearly 25 per cent of the population of Wales, there is strength in numbers and the Disabled People’s Manifesto will reflect the views and priorities of disabled people across the nation to inform and influence the programme of the next Welsh Government.”
DW will be engaging with disabled people and their organisations until the end of March 2015, with workshops on 29 January (in Neath), 12 February (in Llandudno), and 5 March (in Aberystwyth), as well as a national survey.
Meanwhile, as part of the international disability festival DaDaFest International 2014, the inaugural DaDaFest International Congress on Disability Culture and Human Rights took place in Liverpool on 2 and 3 December.
The event aimed to highlight “the multiple ways in which disability culture can impact human rights and social change”, with speakers including Krip-Hop Nation’s Leroy Moore and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England.
And the user-led charity Breakthrough UK used IDPD to publish the winners of its annualNational Independent Living Awards.
The overall winner was SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living, in Southampton, while the other winners were disabled artist Rachel Gadsden, Surrey Independent Living PA Finder Service, Cherry Orchard Garden Services in Staffordshire, and Monique Jarrett, of the Independence Development Service in Manchester.
The Together! disability history month festival used IDPD to exhibit some of the decorated hands that have been made as part of its Hands Project, which “celebrates the fact that everyone is both unique and part of the same human race” by asking people to make and decorate their own hands from card or foam.
The exhibition, in Stratford, east London, included hands from Thailand, China and Australia.
The English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) and Disability Rights UK (DR UK) used IDPD to publish Being Active, a new guide aimed at supporting more disabled people to enjoy an active lifestyle.
Chris Ratcliffe, EFDS’s director of development, said: “Inactive disabled people have individual reasons why their experiences have meant they have stopped doing, do not want to or feel they cannot access sport or physical activity.
“This guide is fantastic because it doesn’t supply endless pages of links, opportunities or reasons why disabled people should be active. It provides a range of ideas and tips for leading a healthier lifestyle.”
DR UK also celebrated a new partnership with Sport England, which saw it awarded nearly £800,000 of lottery funding.
DR UK, together with Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living, Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People) and Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, will run a pilot scheme that aims to increase the number of disabled people using personal budgets to access sporting opportunities.
Meanwhile, Blue Badge Style used IDPD to launch public voting on which of 22 designs for “stylish, innovative and functional” wheelchair accessories will be developed into a prototype.
The 22 designs come from final-year product and industrial design students at Brunel University, as part ofthe university’s Co-Innovate programme.
They include a secure but stylish backpack, a cocktail holder, a waterproof wheelchair cover, a phone charger powered by wheeling, and somewhere for wheelchair-users to place a placard on a demonstration.
Fiona Jarvis, founder of Blue Badge Style, said: “The car industry has embraced technology to improve seats, but wheelchair design is stuck in the 1940s and stylish accessories are non-existent.
“Disabled people badly need some well-designed accessories that aren’t just in navy or black.”
The Papworth Trust also published its annual Disability in the UK report, which provides 33 pages of disability-related facts and figures.
Among the report’s most shocking figures, says the charity’s chief executive Vicky McDermott, is that the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled people has widened by a third since 2010, while children in families that include a disabled person are almost twice as likely to live in poverty.
The theme of this year’s IDPD was Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology, which the UN said would “work to harness the power of technology to promote inclusion and accessibility”.
The UN focused on three particular areas: the need for “disability-inclusive” development; the use of technology to ensure the needs of disabled people are addressed when trying to reduce the risks associated with disasters and emergency responses; and creating work environments that are “open, inclusive and accessible”.
And in Brussels, the European Commission and the European Disability Forum (EDF) organised a two-day conference on Building Together a Barrier-Free Europe, to mark European Day of Persons with Disabilities, also held on 3 December.
It was attended by hundreds of disabled people, their organisations, EU policy-makers, service-providers, think-tanks, trade unions and employers.
In his speech to the conference, EDF president Yannis Vardakastanis criticised the lack of “high-level political participation” in improving disability rights by the European Commission, and called for “stronger political commitment”.
Scottish devolution agreement ‘falls far short of disabled people’s demands’
An agreement between the leading political parties over devolving further powers to Scotland “falls far short” of what was demanded by disabled people, say campaigners.
The Smith Commission, which reported last week, secured an agreement backed by the five parties represented in the Scottish parliament: the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and the Conservatives.
The agreement will give powers over disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP) and some other disability benefits to the Scottish parliament.
But responsibility for the new universal credit (UC) will remain with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), although the Scottish parliament will have powers to vary the “bedroom tax” and housing benefit rates.
New arrangements for how the Motability car scheme will operate in Scotland for DLA and PIP claimants “will be agreed between the Scottish and UK governments”.
And the Scottish parliament will operate the much-criticised employment programmes currently carried out by various companies and charities on behalf of DWP through the Work Programme and Work Choice, once current contracts have expired.
John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based campaign group Black Triangle, said the agreement “falls far short of what we had demanded”, although he welcomed the decision to devolve PIP and DLA.
He said the “elephant in the room” was the operation of the work capability assessment (WCA) – the controversial test which assesses eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit – and the role of private companies in delivering it.
McArdle said he was “outraged” that DWP would still have responsibility for the WCA and ESA, which reports suggest was a last-minute stance agreed by Labour and the Conservatives against the wishes of the Greens, SNP and Liberal Democrats, which had all argued for UC and ESA to be devolved.
He said: “The WCA regime still presents a catastrophe for disabled people in Scotland, which is leading to a humanitarian crisis.”
He was also unhappy that keeping universal credit under the control of Westminster would mean that the imposition of sanctions for failing to comply with strict conditions for ESA and jobseeker’s allowance would remain under DWP control.
He said there were increasing reports of disabled people found “fit for work” after a WCA who then find that their DLA or PIP is also denied or withdrawn.
Sharing of information between decision-makers for the two benefits was confirmed by disabled people’s minister Mark Harper last week when, in a Commons debate on PIP, he said that claimants who had already gone through a WCA were having that form handed to the PIP decision-maker.
So far, Labour has not commented on why it appears to have backed the Conservative refusal to devolve responsibility for ESA and UC to the Scottish parliament.
Bill Scott, director of policy for Inclusion Scotland, said his organisation was “disappointed that all welfare benefits including universal credit were not devolved to Scotland”.
He said: “We ran engagement events and an online survey and almost unanimously disabled people told us that they wanted control over all benefits devolved.
“That’s because without control over means-tested benefits, it will be difficult for the Scottish government to construct a disability benefits system which supports disabled people to participate in society rather than punishes them for having an impairment.”
But he said Inclusion Scotland was “delighted” that the Scottish parliament would have some control over housing benefit and “that it will use it to abolish the bedroom tax”.
He said: “In Scotland, 80 per cent of the households affected by the under-occupation charge contain a disabled person, so getting rid of this discriminatory penalty will be very popular with disabled people.”
And he said Inclusion Scotland hoped that the Scottish government would be able to secure an arrangement with Motability that would see fewer disabled people losing their vehicles under the transfer from DLA to PIP.
He said: “Scotland is much more rural than England, with less good public transport links. Therefore a car is not a luxury but an essential in areas like the Highlands.”
He welcomed the new powers over employment programmes but said that without control over either the WCA regime or jobseeker’s allowance and ESA sanctions “Scottish disabled people are still going be wrongly found fit for work and subjected to unfair and draconian sanctions when they are unable to comply with the conditions placed on them by Jobcentre Plus”.
He said: “We wanted and needed control over the whole regime to radically transform it into a vehicle which supports disabled people instead of failing them.”
Lord Smith, chair of the UK power company SSE, who headed the commission, said: “Taken together, these new powers will deliver a stronger [Scottish] parliament, a more accountable parliament and a more autonomous parliament.
“The recommendations, agreed between the parties, will result in the biggest transfer of powers to the parliament since its establishment.
“This agreement is, in itself, an unprecedented achievement. It demanded compromise from all of the parties.
“In some cases that meant moving to devolve greater powers than they had previously committed to, while for other parties it meant accepting the outcome would fall short of their ultimate ambitions.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com