DWP Secret reviews, Disabled students to sue government, Disabled people designed out, Mayor defends Liberty date switch, Mobile revolution makes disabled people more appealing

The start of another week and maybe, just maybe spring has finally sprung! To celebrate we’ve decided to have two of our upstairs bedrooms redecorated.

All of our children have flown the nest and we have an opportunity to decorate using colours schemes we actually like. This has required some delicate negotiations with the grown up offspring but these have now been successfully completed.

Given that I have never actually been upstairs, conversations with my wife about colour schemes and wall coverings have been an interesting experience. It is very difficult to appreciate the subtleties of space and light without the actual experience of being in the room. Here’s where modern technology and, in particular the ubiquitous IPhone comes to the rescue.

Using the Face Time app to link our phones, Sue became a TV Make Over presenter and gave me a real time tour of the bedrooms and I was able to see first hand what needed doing. I was able to direct her to show me particular features or views and although not perfect, it worked really well.

The colours are chosen and the painters are in and Sue goes upstairs each evening clutching her IPhone and shows me the progress the guys are making. I can also check on the quality of their workmanship! Hoorah for technology I say.

Have a great week and here’s the latest news.

News Roundup

Secret DWP reviews called for improvements after benefit deaths

The government has admitted that more than 30 secret reviews carried out following the deaths of benefit claimants called for improvements in how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) operates locally and nationally.

The “appalling” statistic has added to pressure on DWP to publish the reviews, and is the latest in a series of revelations to emerge through Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests, which disabled activists say “should be setting alarm bells ringing at Westminster”.

Last night (5 March), a member of the Commons work and pensions select committee demanded that DWP finally confirms what changes it has introduced as a result of the reviews, and reveals how many of those who died had had their benefits sanctioned.

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams said: “I have repeatedly asked for information from ministers and been met with a wall of silence.

“And that’s because, frankly, certain ministers have too much to hide and too much to lose.”

The latest FoIA figures featured in a Dispatches documentary on the government’s benefit sanctions regime, which was broadcast on 2 March on Channel 4.

Dispatches revealed that, of 49 secret “peer reviews” carried out since February 2012, 33 contained recommendations for improvements in procedures at either national or local level within DWP.

Dispatches also revealed that 40 of the 49 internal reviews had been carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant, information that came from a response to an FoIA request from Disability News Service (DNS).

Despite a series of FoIA requests from DNS to DWP, the department has refused to publish the reviews, or their summaries, recommendations or conclusions, even with personal details removed.

DNS has now appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office over DWP’s refusal to release this information.

The FoIA response said that any national recommendations were “referred to the Customer Journey team for inclusion in their regular reviews”, while local recommendations were “referred to the appropriate office to be taken forward”.

DWP ministers and officials have been repeatedly criticised for their attempts to avoid releasing key information about the peer reviews.

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “In an open and democratic society, the public must be able to scrutinise the actions of public authorities in order to hold them to account and if the DWP are refusing to reveal the recommendations from these 33 cases, it will make that an impossibility.

“We call on everyone now to demand that the DWP releases the summaries of the reviews. We really need to know what these recommendations were.”

He said there was “no reason” why DWP could not anonymise the details of the deceased claimants, as theMental Welfare Commission for Scotland had done in the case of Ms DE, when it concluded that the assessment of her “fitness for work” and the subsequent denial of the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA) was at least a “major factor in her decision to take her own life”.

Bob Ellard, from Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The FOI response that ‘recommendations have been referred to the Customer Journey team for inclusion in their regular reviews’ might be appropriate for missing copier paper, but is not acceptable for reviews into avoidable deaths of human beings.

“Did anyone at DWP ensure that recommendations got turned into action to prevent more claimant deaths? Were ministers informed? Did ministers take responsibility for the prevention of further claimant deaths?

“These continuing revelations should be setting alarm bells ringing at Westminster.”

Ellard said there was a need for “full transparency” and yet the DWP was “stalling”, while Labour’s frontbench had been “silent” on the issue.

Despite the silence from Labour’s frontbench, Abrahams is pushing ministers to release evidence that the government has been to blame for any of the deaths, or that DWP’s actions had been “inappropriate or incorrect”.

She told DNS: “It’s taken an FoI, but it’s good that the government have had to acknowledge publicly that at least 33 people who have died whilst in receipt of social security support have done so in circumstances that merited a change in the way the DWP operates at both local and national levels.

“What we need to know now is how they are changing the system to ensure that these appalling statistics don’t rise. We also need to know how many of these people were, or had been, sanctioned.

“The fact that the DWP is making it so difficult to get straight answers to questions about what they’re doing to ensure vulnerable people are treated appropriately whilst on social security is appalling.”

The latest FoIA responses came as a coroner found that a disabled woman killed herself after receiving a letter warning that she could lose her disability benefits.

Julia Kelly, from Kingsthorpe, Northampton, who had chronic back pain after two serious car accidents, died in November after previously having to attend three tribunals to overturn decisions to remove her ESA.

She had reportedly received a letter from DWP asking her to pay back £4,000 in benefits because she had failed to declare some savings.

The coroner, Anne Pember, recording a verdict of suicide, said she believed that the “upset caused by the potential withdrawal of her benefits had been the trigger for her to end her life”.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with the family of Julia Kelly.

“ESA is a means-tested benefit and entitlement depends on the amount an individual has in savings or capital.

“If a claimant exceeds the threshold, with thousands of pounds in savings, they may no longer be entitled to the benefit.”

But she refused to say whether the case would be the subject of a peer review.

She said: “Peer reviews are private documents containing extremely personal information. It would be inappropriate for us to make these public and we do not intend to provide a running commentary on their existence or progress in specific cases.”

Rick Burgess, co-founder of New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for ESA – said the coroner’s verdict showed that Julia Kelly had killed herself “because of the threats made to her by the DWP”, and that it was “no wonder” the department “uses every means to cover up evidence of its crimes”.

He added: “As with child sex abuse and murder, we have an entire establishment that will not police itself when it commits grievous crimes.”
Disabled students win permission to take government to court

Two disabled students have won permission to launch a legal case against the government, over plans to restrict funding for the support and equipment that helps them attend university.

They say they have been “ignored” by the government in a consultation on its plans to reform the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) admitted last October that its planned cuts and reforms to disability-related higher education support would have a “negative impact” on disabled students, and increase the chance of them facing discrimination at university.

Now law firm Irwin Mitchell has secured permission for a judicial review of the proposals, to challenge whether it was unlawful for BIS to consult only with a “select group” of stakeholders.

DSA is a non-means-tested grant that assists with the extra costs a disabled student faces during higher education study, but the BIS proposals only apply to students from England.

It is currently awarded to more than 60,000 disabled students, with spending of nearly £150 million on undergraduates in 2012-13.

The government wants to force individual universities to step in and fill the gaps in support that will be left by the DSA cuts, through their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

The legal action is supported by the National Deaf Children’s Society and Ambitious about Autism, while The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) has been coordinating the gathering of witness statements from disabled students.

ALLFIE, which has supported the two students taking the case, welcomed the decision to allow it to proceed to judicial review.

Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, said: “We are pleased that Zanna’s and Joseph’s judicial review case will be heard in the courts.

“From our view it is not only the lack of consultation that is at issue, but also that the DSA reforms will have a significant impact upon disabled students.”

She said that universities had told the government that they do not have the resources to provide the support disabled students need “in order to flourish in higher education”.

Aspis said: “As far as we concerned, the DSA reforms are just another attack on disabled students’ support to enable them to access higher education.

“We already know that disabled people are less likely to be thinking about university and that admissions tutors will be asking how much it will cost them to provide support.”

Although BIS has postponed some of the DSA changes until 2016-17, many will still be introduced from the start of the academic year in September. The consultation on the government’s plans ended last month.

Both the disabled students taking the case say they have “major concerns” about the consultation process, and believe the proposals could prevent many other disabled young people from starting or completing a university education.

Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, from Cumbria, who is deaf, is applying to study art and design or fashion design at several universities.

But without DSA she is not sure that she will receive the support she needs to follow group discussions and conversations between teachers and other students.

Her college and audiology centre currently provide her with specialist equipment and software, but she cannot take it with her to university, and she will also need adaptations to her university student accommodation, such as a flashing fire alarm, which would currently be paid for through DSA.

She said: “I’m really worried that if I don’t receive the appropriate support in terms of DSA at the beginning of the academic year it could seriously impact my studies.

“To not have been asked about the changes is not right and I want to be informed about what is proposed and have my views heard.”

The second student is 19-year-old Joseph Bell, who has autism, and began studying physics, astrophysics and cosmology at Lancaster University last October.

DSA funded an assistant to support him with adjusting to university life when he started his course, and continues to provide him with vital assistance.

He said: “Just because I made it to university, does not mean I’ll cope without support.

“Without DSA, the trivial things would become impossible for me. This also applies to many future disabled students, who are being ignored by the government.”

Alex Rook, from lawyers Irwin Mitchell, who is representing the two students, said: “Thousands of students are reliant on this support to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding higher education, but the proposals mean there is a real concern many could be left without the help they need.

“We believe the student community should have been given the chance to have their voices heard on this matter, prior to any decision being made, and we are delighted to have been given permission to proceed with a judicial review.”

A BIS spokesman said he could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but confirmed that permission for the judicial review had been granted.

On Monday, Greg Clark, the Conservative minister for universities, science and cities, told a hustings event in Westminster*: “I don’t want to do anything that would put off a single disabled student from going to university, quite the reverse.”

But he said – in response to a question on DSA from Aspis – that there was “a challenge for universities” to meet their duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students under the Equality Act, “just as any other employer [sic] has to” to make sure their premises are accessible.

He said he could not comment on what his party would do if it won the next election, because BIS was still consulting on its plans, but he said: “I want to work consensually with disabled students and their representative groups to get it right.”

*Watch from one hour, 12 minutes
Two city buildings ‘design out disabled visitors’ by scrapping blue badge spaces

Two major cultural institutions in Manchester have been criticised for “designing out disabled people” by removing all of their on-site blue badge parking spaces during multi-million pound renovation programmes.

Manchester Central Library and the Whitworth art gallery, part of the University of Manchester, both offered several off-road blue badge spaces outside their buildings before huge new redevelopment projects.

But the library has now paved over spaces both in front of and behind the building, while the gallery has removed four accessible spaces that were previously within its grounds.

Both projects received millions of pounds of public funding, with the £15 million extension to the Whitworth – funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England – opening earlier this month, and the£50 million library redevelopment reopening nearly a year ago.

But both institutions are now less accessible to disabled people who need to arrive in their own cars.

The Whitworth expected the city council to place three new blue badge spaces – with drop kerbs – in a street beside the gallery, Denmark Road, but they have been delayed by pedestrianisation works to nearby Oxford Road.

One wheelchair-user, Guy, is now unable to visit either building without a carer or personal assistant, and said that both redevelopments had “designed out disabled people”.

He was previously a frequent visitor to the central library and the gallery because of his work as an artist, and even had his first date with his partner at the library.

He said: “They have designed out disability access. It’s all very well putting a ramp in, but if you can’t get to the building you can’t get to the ramp.”

He added: “I have visited the library a few times since the opening, but I have had to have someone with me to help me get into my chair on the busy streets, and to just stop me getting mowed down.

“As an independent wheelchair-user, I can never go in there alone again.”

A council spokesman said it planned to provide 16 new disabled parking bays on Peter Street and Mount Street, which both run past the library, but this had been delayed due to ongoing improvement work around the area.

He said: “Disabled badge-holders are also able to park for free and with no time limit in any pay and display bay, such as those which can be found on a number of streets very close to the library.”

But Guy said: “The original disabled spaces were off-road, giving safe, secure space to unload a wheelchair and manoeuvre without the risk of being hit by a car.

“That’s precisely why they were put there in the first place. Disabled people have now been placed in significant danger due to their removal.

“It appears that the very last thing to be built in the entire project is the disabled access parking.”

He said he feared the provision of the 16 new bays “may still be years away”, while parking for free in regular pay-and-display bays was often suggested as a sub-standard alternative to dedicated disabled bays.

He said: “As an independent wheelchair-user, to use a regular parking space I have to wheel myself along the middle of the road until I find a drop kerb, usually at a junction. That is, if I have a death wish.

“Disabled people come last, are placed in danger, and are asked to lose good access for the sake of design. They should have designed it better. It’s a public building and I paid for it as well.”

Guy said that he cried in his car when he realised what had happened with the Whitworth spaces.

He said: “I told the Whitworth that I go in there at least once a week. I know the people in there, it’s an important part of my life.”

When he arrived outside for a recent visit, he called the gallery to tell them where he was and they had to send staff out to carry him onto the pavement and then help him across the road.

He said: “If you can’t get your car there, you can’t get in, but 99 per cent of disabled people with wheelchairs use the car.”

He said the three accessible bays that would eventually be installed in Denmark Road beside the gallery would not be available exclusively to gallery visitors, while the road itself was “probably not wide enough to accommodate extra wide parking to get a wheelchair out of a car”, and the pavement was “uneven and is not wide enough”.

A spokesman for the Whitworth said the council’s highways department would be painting double yellow lines on Denmark Road as a temporary solution. This would allow three hours free parking for blue badge-holders.

But he admitted that there were currently no dropped kerbs, and said: “I think the initial temporary solution is to get the double yellow lines in and then continue the pressure for the bays and changes to the kerb.”

He added: “At the moment we will have staff on hand each week to assist disabled visitors who need a drop-off point.

“We have posted a contact number on our website so that any disabled visitor requiring assistance can contact us in advance of our visit.

“We sincerely apologise to any visitors who have been inconvenienced by the current situation.”

But Guy said that offering a drop-off point would mean he would not be able to visit as an independent disabled person.

He said: “Once again, good, off-road disabled access has been removed without any thought to the replacement.

“I am told by the gallery that I must park on double yellows, am only allowed to stay for three hours and must place myself at greater risk.

“As an independent wheelchair-user, I have tried now on two occasions and cannot gain access to the gallery.

“The options that are supposed to be in the pipeline are years away, won’t be sufficient and so I will be excluded again forever.”

Meanwhile, two government ministers – the Liberal Democrat communities minister Stephen Williams and the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper – have backed a new industry action plan, which aims to make buildings and public spaces more inclusive.

The two ministers chaired a meeting of representatives from the construction and design industries to review the plan, which includes measures on vocational and professional training, promoting industry awareness, and supporting cross-industry collaboration on research and innovation.

John Mathers, chief executive of the Design Council, which hosted the round-table meeting, said: “Our goal is to ensure that creating inclusive environments for everyone becomes the standard approach to planning, design, construction and management practice.”

Organisations including the Construction Industry Council, English Heritage, the National Register of Access Consultants, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Access Association have signed up to the action plan.

Williams said: “In October last year we issued a challenge to key players in the construction industry to create buildings, places and spaces that work better for everyone by making inclusion a key part of their work.

“The action plan we have seen today is a great start in making a more inclusive built environment a reality.”
Mayor defends Liberty date switch

London’s mayor has been forced to defend the decision to change the date of the capital’s annual disability arts festival, and to move it from a Saturday to a Sunday.

Some disabled artists fear that the move could damage visitor numbers, particularly as this year’s event – on 26 July, rather than its traditional date in early September – will coincide with the International Paralympic Committee’s Athletics Grand Prix Final.

When Liberty was held for the first time in 2003, it was held in Trafalgar Square, before being moved eight years later to London’s South Bank.

It established itself as a vital date on the capital’s disability arts calendar, and became a tourist attraction in its own right, playing a major part in raising awareness of disability rights and boosting the profile of some of the country’s most talented disabled artists.

But for the last two years, it has merged with National Paralympic Day (NPD), and is hosted by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

This year, as well as the athletics, Liberty will be competing for visitors’ attention with Paralympic medal-winning swimmers competing in the London Aquatics Centre, also part of NPD.

The swimmers will be competing just days after their IPC World Championships take place in Glasgow.

The athletics and swimming will be ticketed, but the other events will be free, including Liberty, and the chance to try out disability sports.

The British Paralympic Association is also planning events in at least two other cities to mark NPD.

Last year, Liberty struggled to compete with the attractions of NPD. A low-key line-up on the main stage, combined with the public interest in Britain’s Paralympians, put the arts festival even further into the shadows than in 2013, when it merged with NPD for the first time.

Lengthy queues for autographs from London 2012 stars and medal-winning Sochi 2014 Paralympic skiers Kelly Gallagher and Jade Etherington contrasted for most of the afternoon with rows of empty seats in front of the main Liberty stage.

Dr Ju Gosling, artistic director of the disability arts, culture and human rights organisation Together! 2012, which is based in east London, said she had been frustrated by the decision to schedule Liberty on the first weekend of the school holidays, when more people – including personal assistants (PAs) and carers – leave town “than any other weekend of the year”, while PAs were always much harder to book on a Sunday.

She said Liberty had been “dumped” on “the worst day of the summer for events organisers”.

But following a meeting with the organisers of Liberty and NPD to discuss the concerns, she said they were able to “have a full and frank exchange of views”.

She said: “As a result, we hope to be able to work together to maximise local engagement, as well as to research barriers to participation that will assist with the continuing growth of the festival in future years.

“Together! 2012 remains committed to supporting the Liberty festival in east London.”

Tracey Jannaway, director of Independent Living Alternatives, the company set up by Liberty’s late founder, David Morris, was critical last year of the decision to merge Liberty with NPD, and the lack of promotion for the arts festival.

She said: “So Liberty will be shifted to July. If this is with the usual lack of publicity I’ll be surprised if anyone turns up for the arts side of the event.”

A spokesman for the mayor, Boris Johnson, said: “We are currently finalising plans for the Liberty festival, which is one of the most important showcases of disabled artists in the country and a key cultural event for the capital.

“Last year’s event in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park attracted bigger crowds than previous events in Trafalgar Square and with the improved access it offers we hope even more people, whether disabled or otherwise, will attend this year.”

He said the park was “one of the most accessible public spaces in London, with good transport links and parking available for disabled people”.

And he said that bringing together “leading artists and top sports stars is a great opportunity to celebrate and showcase talented people in two important fields”.

The spokesman said that Liberty was “a family-friendly event that offers a great free day out at the start of the holidays”, and organisers hoped there would be “sufficient notice for anyone who has personal assistance requirements to plan ahead”.
Mobile revolution ‘is making disabled people more appealing as employees’

The mobile computing revolution is heling to make disabled people more “appealing” to potential employers, as well as to providers of goods and services, according to a leading disabled telecommunications analyst.

In a new report, Digitising the Disabled Billion: Accessibility gets Personal, Chris Lewis says the technology is “increasingly available” to draw a “significant proportion” of the world’s estimated population of one billion disabled people into the “digital age”.

He says that the “explosion” of mobile and laptop-based applications, combined with some specialist equipment, has made accessing business systems easier.

His report says: “As the sophistication of accessible design permeates through the majority of personal and business applications, the value of that disabled person in the company increases.

“Consequently, barriers to using all of the facilities and systems, and communicating and interacting with fellow colleagues, suppliers and customers, decrease dramatically.”

Lewis says in the report that disabled people will increasingly use their mobile devices and apps to “help live their daily lives”, just as other people do, with apps becoming accessible as companies “build accessibility” into their mobile devices.

He adds: “Mainstream apps will become accessible, and specialist apps focused on specialist needs of disabilities will be developed to top up the existing digital life styles.”

Lewis says in his report that the “age of assistive equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars” has mostly been replaced by “algorithms designed to interpret images, sounds and gestures (but perhaps not yet brainwaves)… as academia gets closer to mimicking the human”.

And he says: “If a car can have hundreds of sensors helping it drive around successfully, why can’t I, as a visually-disabled person, have a similar level of sensor-based help to help me navigate my way through life?”

The market in equipment and apps has “accelerated” in the last few years, according to his report, pointing to how someone who is paraplegic can now fly a drone around their garden “through the eye movement captured by a set of goggles”, while virtual reality headsets allow someone to “virtually feel a product created in front of them”.

“Fundamentally,” the report says, “technology in many forms is allowing sensory replacement for both input and output from a disabled person.”

Lewis, who is blind, says the development of the smartphone has changed his life, giving him access to “a wealth of services”.

His report says innovation is now coming from “a much wider range of sources”, with companies often developing “disability oriented solutions alongside mainstream ones” without the need for any “special encouragement”, while it adds: “We are also beginning to see the disabled community itself producing apps appropriate for their peers.”

Mainstream apps are becoming increasingly accessible, says the report, and are “literally life changing, as people get access to services hitherto completely out of reach to different disability groups”.

Lewis adds: “A simple but powerful example would be the ability for me, as a blind person, to hail a cab from my smartphone where I was previously unable to do so from the pavement.”

Discussions with technology companies and disability organisations, as well as polling of disabled people for the report had shown that “momentum is building within different disabled communities to seek to learn the benefits and ways of joining in the digital economy”.

Lewis, the founder and chief executive of Lewis Insight, warns that – although the technology is increasingly available at an affordable price – it will be vital to provide the right training and education.

His report is the second in a series sponsored by the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica on how disabled people can use accessible technology to improve their lives.

Lewis concludes: “The technology is increasingly available to deliver this future. The need to educate both the disabled and the people helping them identify the solutions available is the biggest challenge we face.”

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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