Annual day celebrates ‘independence’ for wheelchair-users

A disabled campaigner is hoping disabled people in the UK and around the world will use an annual day to celebrate the independence provided by their wheelchair.

Steve Wilkinson launched International Wheelchair Day five years ago, and although it has yet to take off in the UK, there were events last year in both Nepal and Australia.

He wants wheelchair-users to mark the day – 1 March – in their own way, either through an organised event or a small personal celebration of “the positive impact a wheelchair has had in their lives”.

IWD also aims to raise awareness of the access challenges still facing wheelchair-users, and focus on the estimated 100 million disabled people worldwide who do not have the wheelchairs they need.

Wilkinson said: “The day is for all wheelchair-users around the world to celebrate what wheelchairs can do for them. A wheelchair gives people the freedom they wouldn’t [otherwise] have.”

For the first few years, he used IWD to blog about wheelchair-related issues, but last year, there was a rally on 1 March of more than 90 wheelchair-users calling for better access in Kathmandu, Nepal, while Wilkinson himself attended an event in Adelaide, South Australia.

This year, there will be another event in Adelaide, due to be opened by Tony Piccolo, South Australia’s minister for disabilities.

And in Cape Town, South Africa, fundraisers will be using IWD to hand over bags full of bread tags – plastic tags used to tie bread bags – that have been collected for the charity Bread Tags for Wheelchairs.

For every 10 kg of bread tags, the charity receives enough money from a recycling company for a new wheelchair.

19 February 2013

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Jobcentre ‘harassed’ woman as she received emergency blood transfusion

A disabled woman awaiting a second kidney transplant was “harassed” by her local jobcentre during an emergency blood transfusion, because they wanted to know when she would be well enough to attend a back-to-work interview.

Annemarie Campbell says the jobcentre in central London knew she was in hospital, and that she was seriously ill, but still hounded her while she lay hooked up to life-saving medical equipment in an emergency renal ward of Hammersmith Hospital last Friday (8 February).

Campbell, who has end-stage renal failure, described her treatment by jobcentre staff as “inhumane, discriminatory and degrading”.

She had received a letter from the jobcentre asking her to attend a work-focussed interview on 8 February.

She called a manager at the jobcentre on 7 February, and told him she was seriously ill and had to be in hospital the next day for an emergency transfusion.

She was told they would phone her again in a few weeks. Instead, she received a call the next day from a member of the jobcentre’s staff, who said: “It’s just to ask you when you can attend the interview. Can somebody not tell you when you are going to be released?”

When Campbell said she was hooked up to medical equipment for the transfusion of six pints of blood, the woman asked her to find out from her consultant when she would be well enough to leave hospital.

Campbell, a former civil servant, from west London, is now considering legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), while she says her consultant is writing a letter of complaint.

She said the experience left her in tears throughout the following weekend, and that her consultant had now told her she could not continue her studies or take part in a work placement because her life was “on a knife edge” due to the extra stress.

She said: “What happened has made me more ill. They have screwed up my treatment and won’t get off my back.

“I have been stripped of my dignity. It has made me feel as if my disability is being used as a stick to beat me with.

“What if I don’t get a transplant? Are they going to punish me? I don’t need a job, I need a kidney.”

Campbell is also angry because she has told the jobcentre she already has a job to go back to when she is well enough – she does legal agency work – and is desperate to return to employment and her part-time university course.

Her problems began in 2009, after she had to appeal against being found fit for work and ineligible for employment and support allowance (ESA).

She eventually won her appeal and was placed in the ESA support group – for those not expected to do any work-related activity – but returned to agency work when her condition improved.

Her health deteriorated again, and she was forced to reapply for ESA last autumn.

When Atos Healthcare – the company that assesses “fitness for work” – heard how ill she was, and saw a letter from her GP, she was told she would not need a face-to-face assessment and would be placed straight into the support group.

But three weeks ago, she was called by her local jobcentre to say the DWP’s own decision-makers had placed her in the work-related activity group, for those with lower support needs, and would need to attend a work-focussed interview.

Campbell says she made it clear to the jobcentre that she was extremely unwell and about to return to hospital.

This week, Jobcentre Plus has phoned to apologise and assure her that she will not now need to attend a work-focussed interview and has finally been placed in the support group.

Linda Burnip, one of the co-founders of Disabled People Against Cuts, which received a request for help from Campbell this week, said: “While we’re inundated on a daily basis with reports about people’s appalling experiences at the hands of Atos and DWP staff, this has to be the most callous and brutal example of how the system is totally failing to meet the needs of disabled people.”

A DWP spokesman denied that Campbell had been “harassed”, and claimed that she had arranged for the jobcentre to call her about the work-focussed interview on the day she was in hospital having the emergency transfusion, but had warned that she might not be available because of the treatment.

Campbell says this claim is “absolute rubbish”, and that she had simply told them on 7 February that she was “really unwell” and that they could call her consultant the next day if they did not believe her.

The DWP spokesman claimed there had been no harassment on the phone while Campbell was lying in her hospital bed, and said: “I don’t know exactly what [the jobcentre employee] said so I cannot comment on that at all.”

He said Jobcentre Plus had phoned Campbell to apologise this week “because she was upset by the call [while she was receiving her transfusion], because obviously she was. It was also to reassure her that she was in the support group.”

He added: “Our version of events is obviously different. It was unfortunate timing that she was in hospital and she was upset and it was completely reasonable that we apologise that she was upset.”

14 February 2013

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Hunt ‘ignores Dilnot’ on funding care for working-age disabled people

The government looks set to force tens of thousands more working-age disabled people to pay towards their long-term care and support than was recommended by an independent commission.

The coalition announced this week its long-awaited reforms to how older people should pay for their long-term care, but provided few details on how many younger disabled people would be expected to contribute towards their support.

The Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the new measures would be based on recommendations made by the Dilnot Commission in 2011, with a cap on lifetime care costs for older people of £75,000 – higher than Dilnot had recommended – to be introduced from 2017, as well as a new means-test threshold of £123,000.

Currently only those with assets of less than £23,250 and a “low income” receive help from the state with their care costs.

Hunt told MPs that, from 2017, people who develop care needs before they turn 18 would continue to receive free care, while there would be a lower cap on lifetime care costs for people of working age who develop support needs after 18 but before retirement age.

A Department of Health (DH) spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS): “For the first time ever, we have introduced a measure to help people who develop a care need after 18, but before state pension age.

“This group will now be protected from the astronomical care costs they currently face with a care cap that is below the £75,000 threshold.”

He added: “We are working closely with stakeholders on the details of the reform, including those for working age adults, and will be consulting on the details of these reforms over the summer.”

But Dilnot had recommended that all people with eligible needs who become disabled before the age of 40 should receive free care and support.

He argued that such people should not have to pay towards their support, because they had not had the same opportunities to build up savings and fund their own care as those who develop care needs after retirement.

Dilnot said that those who become disabled after 40 would be expected to make some contribution towards their lifetime care costs, with the total amount they were expected to pay rising by about £10,000 per decade.

Despite repeated requests by DNS, DH has so far been unable to provide any details of the cap for working-age adults, or why Hunt chose to ignore Dilnot’s clear recommendation.

Sue Bott, director of development for Disability Rights UK, said the government needed to explain why it was “rejecting the careful reasoning outlined in Dilnot”.

She said she was concerned that the measures for younger disabled people appeared to be a “disincentive to work”, and at Hunt’s failure to provide a “clear statement” about the support needs of working-age disabled people, which need to be considered “as a matter of urgency”.

She said that charges for care and support were continuing to rise, with reports of disabled people in “real difficulties”.

She added: “The regime of community care charges is out of control and no-one in government is keeping an eye on it and no-one is assessing the impact on disabled people in terms of increasing poverty. This urgently needs addressing.”

Dr Sarah Campbell, who has co-authored reports on social care and welfare reform for the WeAreSpartacus campaign, welcomed the decision on under-18s, which she said would “allow young people to enjoy the same start in life as their peers and an equal opportunity to save for their future”.

But she expressed disappointment that the coalition had ignored Dilnot’s recommendations on working-age people, who would “continue to be severely penalised should they become disabled and require care”.

She said: “Newly disabled people will find themselves facing not only difficult life-changing times but the additional loss of any savings and potential financial hardship as well.”

Under the reforms, disabled and older people will have an assessment carried out by their local authority.

If assessed as having eligible care needs – with a new national eligibility threshold to be introduced in 2015 – they will be told how much it would cost for the council to meet those needs with local services. These costs will then count towards the cap.

Hunt described the reforms as “historic” and a “watershed moment” and said they “prove once again that despite these tough economic times, this government is determined to get behind everyone who has worked hard and done the right thing”.

14 February 2013

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DWP disability report is ‘mine of information’ for campaigners

A major new government report has painted the “most comprehensive overview” since 2005 of the disadvantage and barriers faced by disabled people in the UK.

The 106-page report, Fulfilling Potential: Building a Deeper Understanding of Disability in the UK Today, aims to raise awareness, “inform public understanding”, and prompt debate about the issues facing disabled people.

But it will also feed into the next stage of the government’s disability strategy, Fulfilling Potential, with an action plan due in the spring.

The report, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, lays bare the government’s challenge in addressing the barriers facing disabled people.

Among the report’s findings are that:

  • In 2010-11, there were 11.5 million people in the UK covered by the disability provisions of the Equality Act [19 per cent of the population]
  • Only around half of these 11.5 million people receive any disability-related benefits
  • By the age of 26, disabled people are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people
  • Households that include a disabled person who does not receive a disability-related benefit are twice as likely to be in poverty as those with a disabled person who does
  • About 20 per cent of households that include a disabled person live in fuel poverty, compared to 15 per cent of those with no disabled person
  • Disabled people are significantly less likely than non-disabled people to live in households with internet access (61 per cent compared to 86 per cent)

But the report also suggests that disabled people play a larger part in their local civic life, with 36 per cent of disabled people compared with 33 per cent of non-disabled people involved in activities such as contacting a local councillor or MP, taking part in a public demonstration, or signing a petition.

And the DWP’s report also accepts that disability living allowance – which the coalition is about to scrap and replace with a new benefit for working-age adults – has “a major positive impact on recipients’ lives”.

Quoting a report from 2010, the report says DLA helps disabled people to “maintain independence and control”, “meet some of the extra costs of disability”, “improve quality of life”, “access other help and services”, “enhance physical and mental health”, and “maintain warmer, cleaner, more comfortable homes”.

Disability Rights UK said the report was a “mine of information which must inform policy right across government”, and could be used by disabled people to “influence change”, but that it would be “vital” to track the figures over time.

14 February 2013

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Unum bragged about ‘driving government thinking’ on incapacity benefit reform

An insurance company set to make huge financial gains from incapacity benefit (IB) reform bragged about “driving” the government towards those reforms, evidence obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) has revealed.

The US insurance giant Unum has repeatedly denied attempting to influence IB reform over the last two decades, despite mounting evidence that it has done so.

Unum is the largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI) in the UK, and tougher welfare rules – including replacing incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance (ESA) – are likely to persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting the company’s profits.

Unum even launched a major media campaign in 2011 just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through the new, stricter test, the work capability assessment (WCA).

Now DNS has secured a copy of a Unum document on the assessment of “incapacity”, which was published in 2005.

The document was written by Michael O’Donnell, then the company’s chief medical officer and now in the same role at Atos Healthcare, which carries out WCAs on behalf of the government.

O’Donnell says in the document that Unum has “always been at the leading edge of disability assessment and management”.

He adds: “We know that our views and understanding are not yet in the mainstream of doctors’ thinking, but Government Policy is moving in the same direction, to a large extent being driven by our thinking and that of our close associates, both in the UK and overseas.”

Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people, a record mentioned in last month’s Commons debate on Atos and the WCA.

But Unum has also faced criticism in the UK. In a parliamentary debate in 1999, MPs accused the company of refusing to pay out on valid insurance claims from disabled people who had lost their jobs due to ill-health or disability.

Unum continues to dismiss claims that it pushed the government to introduce the ESA/WCA system.

In 2011, John Letizia, Unum’s head of public affairs, told Disability News Service (DNS): “At no time have we influenced the government on the design of the reforms to the welfare state or on the level of benefits that claimants receive.”

And in the same year, at the Conservative Party conference, Unum’s chief executive, Jack McGarry, said: “We haven’t tried to influence the welfare agenda around reducing welfare or making it harder to claim. To my knowledge we have not done that.”

This week, Letizia told DNS again that Unum had not attempted to influence the government’s welfare reform agenda.

He said: “We will never ever deny that there were discussions between Unum and the previous government and there continue to be [with the coalition].”

But he added: “In all the discussions going back over the last five years on welfare reform Unum made absolutely no attempt to influence government policy on the welfare debate, on the ESA or WCA or personal independence payment or disability living allowance, in setting the government agenda.”

After DNS shared the document with Letizia, he declined to comment further.

Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has done most to highlight concerns about Unum, said the new evidence was “very significant”, and called for an independent inquiry into the role of the company in influencing UK welfare reform, particularly when it had such a “disturbing past history”.

She said: “This entire situation confirms the dangers of a government that confuses its priorities, and places the welfare budget as a much higher priority than the needs of its own chronically sick and disabled people.”

She added: “The WCA is a replica of the assessment system used by Unum to resist funding insurance claimants.

“It is a bogus, dangerous assessment and, with this evidence, it is now time that this DWP medical tyranny was ended.”

A DWP spokesman said: “The WCA was designed from the outset with the involvement of a wide range of experts and disability representative groups and has been subject to rigorous independent review.”

14 February 2013

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Minister’s ‘hypocrisy’ over pledge on transport barriers

A minister has been accused of hypocrisy after pledging to break down the barriers to disabled people’s access to public transport, only days after confirming lengthy delays to new European bus and coach access rules.

The European regulation would have given powerful new rights to disabled bus and coach passengers, but the Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker told MPs last week that he was taking full advantage of every exemption open to the government.

The European Union regulation on bus and coach passenger rights will come into force on 1 March, and includes a right to full compensation for lost or damaged wheelchairs, non-discrimination in booking tickets and boarding vehicles, and disability awareness training for all staff who deal with customers.

But Baker is taking advantage of the right of EU states to seek lengthy exemptions from other key parts of the regulation.

These other rights apply to journeys over 155 miles, and EU member states can exempt their regular domestic bus and coach services for up to eight years.

The UK government will now delay by four years – with the possibility of a further four years in 2017 – the right to compensation if a passenger has a reservation and has explained their need for assistance in advance but is still prevented from boarding.

Among other measures it is delaying is a disabled passenger’s right to free assistance at major coach terminals and on board coaches, if they have notified the provider at least 36 hours before departure.

They are also delaying the requirement to provide temporary replacement equipment if a wheelchair or other mobility equipment has been lost or damaged in transit.

The government is also taking advantage of another exemption, delaying compulsory disability awareness training for bus and coach drivers by five years.

Baker has promised to review this last exemption after a year, to check on progress with voluntary measures from the industry, as a result of “concerns from the public”.

Only four days after announcing these exemptions, Baker told a seminar on transport and disabled people, organised by the all-party parliamentary disability group: “Our aim is to remove the barriers that people face, not just the physical barriers but attitudes towards disabled people, from staff and fellow passengers alike.”

Faryal Velmi, director of the accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA), said the minister’s comments – and his department’s Accessibility Action Plan, published in December – “smack of hypocrisy” and “speaking out of both sides of the mouth”.

She said: “Essentially, they are giving the bus and coach industry excuses not to give assistance to disabled and older passengers.”

Maria Eagle, Labour’s former minister for disabled people and now shadow transport secretary, said Baker’s move was “something that I would deplore”.

She said the time-scale for the regulation had already been set to give transport providers time to “factor it in” to their plans for replacing ageing vehicles, so the exemptions were “letting them off the hook” and “a sign of back-sliding and a lower priority for the rights of disabled people from this government”.

A Department for Transport spokesman said it was “committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport services and opportunities to travel as other members of society”, and was “looking at a number of ways of improving the accessibility of public transport, as reflected in our Accessibility Action Plan”.

But he said: “One of the government’s guiding principles when adopting EU legislation is to ensure that UK businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage compared with their European counterparts.”

He said the bus and coach exemptions would “involve some costs to passengers” but claimed that this would be “mitigated” by existing UK contract and equality law and “by the fact that most major long-distance operators already provide a similar quality of service to that required by the EU regulation”.

14 February 2013

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Autistic boy’s swimming pool horror ‘might not be last’ police rights abuse

One of the Metropolitan police’s own disabled advisers has warned that cases of discrimination and human rights abuse by the force’s own officers could become more common because of government funding cuts.

Anne Novis, a member of the force’s Disability Independent Advisory Group (DIAG), spoke out after the court of appeal ruled that the Met had violated the rights of a teenager with autism.

The boy was assaulted by seven officers and forced into handcuffs and leg restraints during a school trip to a swimming-pool in September 2008.

Josh*, who has autism and was 16 years old at the time, had been visiting the pool in west London with four classmates and teaching staff, so they could familiarise themselves with the facilities.

But one of the pool staff called police when Josh became fixated with the water and could not be persuaded to leave the side of the pool.

When the first officers arrived, they failed to consult the staff from his school and tried to grab him, and he jumped into the pool.

Josh continued to show no signs of aggression, but after he was pulled out of the pool by lifeguards, five officers held him on the ground, while another two put him into handcuffs and leg restraints.

He was placed in a cage in the back of a police van, still in handcuffs, leg restraints and soaking wet, and in a “very agitated and distressed” state, a previous court hearing had been told.

As a result of the incident, the frequency of his epileptic seizures increased, and he has experienced post-traumatic stress.

Adrian Whyatt, co-chair of the disabled people’s organisation Autistic UK, said: “This is a classic case of ignoring a person’s access needs by refusing to consider them. Unless there are severe disciplinary consequences for service providers such as the police (and the swimming pool) this will continue.”

A county court found last year that the police officers had assaulted Josh, falsely imprisoned him, and breached the Disability Discrimination Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and awarded him £28,250 in compensation.

The court of appeal today (14 February) dismissed the Met’s appeal against that judgement, stating that nothing could have justified how Josh was restrained.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had intervened in the case, to argue that Josh had been subject to inhuman and degrading treatment, and that his right to liberty had been breached.

Wendy Hewitt, the EHRC’s deputy director, legal, said: “The police deal with many vulnerable people and must make arrangements to ensure that they make well-informed decisions on how and when to restrain them, to avoid breaching their human rights obligations.”

A Met spokesman said the appeal had been to seek “greater clarification” on the police’s statutory duties in such situations involving people with learning difficulties or mental health conditions, and because the original judgement “would make it very difficult for our officers to respond in such situations”.

He said: “We are called when others feel they cannot manage without our assistance. Our officers are required to make decisions affecting people with such impairments in difficult, on occasions fast moving and potentially life-threatening or harm-causing situations.”

He said an independent commission was currently examining the force’s response to cases involving people with mental health conditions.

The force said it had asked the commission to consider Josh’s case “because of the vulnerability issues and the use of restraint, which are areas the commission have looked at in other vulnerable people cases”.

The spokesman added: “Today’s judgement alongside the commission’s report will help us to examine our policies and develop our training and processes.”

But Novis said the force had failed to ask DIAG members for advice in the wake of the incident in 2008.

She believes spending cuts have now led to disability issues becoming a lower priority within the Met, which she fears could lead to more cases like Josh’s.

She said: “With the current climate, the police are having to prioritise what they do. They are going to lose a lot of back-office workers and that includes those who would address diversity issues.”

She said the police needed to be “constantly reminded” of their legal duties and “challenged” by disabled people over their attitudes to disability.

*Not his real name

14 February 2013

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