Transport inquiry is ‘huge opportunity’ for campaigners

A new parliamentary inquiry is a “huge opportunity” for disabled people to raise their concerns with MPs about the accessibility of public transport, say campaigners.

The Commons transport committee, chaired by the Labour MP Louise Ellman, this week called for evidence on how effective current transport laws are for disabled people.

The user-led campaigning organisation Transport for All (TfA), along with some of its members, had suggested an inquiry into accessible transport when the committee asked earlier this year for possible topics to investigate.

Lianna Etkind, TfA’s campaigns and outreach co-ordinator, said the inquiry was “brilliant” news and a “huge opportunity” for disabled people.

Despite disability discrimination legislation, she and her colleagues receive calls every day from disabled people who have been refused entrance onto a bus by its driver, or have booked assistance for a train journey only to arrive at their destination and find no member of staff there to help them off.

Etkind said: “It is so important to make sure that this legislation doesn’t just exist on the statute books but is enforced.

“Some MPs and companies are suggesting the regulation is red tape and an impediment to progress.

“That is extremely worrying because it is the regulation that protects disabled people’s ability to get out and about on equal terms with everybody else, and that ultimately enables us to get to work and participate and be visible.”

She added: “We are certainly going to be encouraging our members to give evidence and to highlight where the legislation is not working and examples of times where they have been discriminated against or let down by transport providers.”

The committee will ask whether the laws on accessible transport are working, whether they should be strengthened, and whether they are being enforced effectively.

It will also examine the accessibility of information on timetables, fares, routes and delays, and the provision of assistance by transport staff, and will ask what can be learned from the way public transport was provided during the London 2012 Paralympics.

Etkind said there had been “a lot of incredibly good stuff” during the games, with TfA members reporting “helpful, friendly, non-patronising, available, visible staff”, which “made a huge amount of difference”.

She added: “What the games showed us was that lots and lots of disabled and older people will get out there and travel on public transport when they can be confident that staff will be available and it will not be a gamble.”

But she also warned that many disabled people would want to raise concerns to the inquiry about the impact of the government’s cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA), which will see an estimated 500,000 people lose eligibility for those benefits.

This issue has not been included in the inquiry’s terms of reference, but Etkind encouraged disabled people to raise it in their evidence.

She pointed to the 100,000 Motability customers expected to have to hand back the keys to their vehicles when they lose their DLA, and added: “I think transport providers need to prepare for a huge influx of disabled people, and many of them are not ready for that.”

Written evidence for the inquiry on the Effectiveness of Legislation Relating to Transport for Disabled People should be submitted to the committee by 14 January 2013.

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Motability is ‘treating disabled people like criminals’ by fitting trackers

Motability has been accused of treating disabled people like criminals, after it began fixing tracking devices to their cars.

The organisation says it has introduced the new measure in a bid to detect “misuse” of its disabled people’s car scheme.

All new customers and those renewing their agreements with the Motability car scheme will now be forced to have a location tracker fitted to their car, if they live in a care home or have an open insurance policy.

Open policies allow disabled people to insure all of a flexible pool of personal assistants who may need to drive their car, rather than having to declare a small number of named drivers on their policy.

Ruth Bashall, a prominent disabled activist, and a user of the scheme for more than a decade, has called on Motability to review its new policy.

Because she has an open insurance policy, she has been told she will have to have a tracker fixed on her new Motability vehicle, which has yet to be delivered.

Bashall said the compulsory fitting of location trackers was a potential breach of the right to privacy and to justice under the Human Rights Act, and potential discrimination under the Equality Act.

She said that as a disabled person with high support needs who uses personal assistants she is having an “unreasonable condition” imposed upon her by Motability.

Motability’s decision to fit the tracking devices follows a series of other measures it has introduced to combat what it claims is “misuse and misrepresentation” by a small minority of customers.

But Bashall said it was also the latest example of the government and wider society “questioning the integrity of disabled people” over their benefits and entitlements.

This includes a series of inaccurate and hostile media reports attacking alleged fraud and misuse of the scheme, which enables disabled people claiming the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance to lease a new vehicle from Motability.

Bashall said the fitting of tracking devices was “insulting and offensive”, and added: “I am extremely concerned about the civil liberties aspect.

“We fit people with tags to track them if they have committed an offence. I have committed no offence.

“We have a government that thinks every disabled person is basically a shyster, and a society that is convinced that every disabled person is a cheat. It is saying to me that I or my PAs are potential fraudsters.”

She added: “This is not an effective way to prevent abuse of the scheme.”

A Motability spokeswoman said the “location trackers” were being fitted to new cars where “the risk of potential misuse is highest”, with customers who have an open insurance policy or live in a care home.

She said: “We will only have access to location data, and will only make use of this data where we receive a report, or suspect, that a car may be being misused. It will not be used or looked at unless there is an allegation that raises suspicion.”

She said the tracker could be used to clear disabled people subjected to malicious allegations and would be there to “protect the scheme and the customer”.

She said Motability expected to fit location trackers in fewer than five per cent of the 600,000 cars leased through the scheme.

Bashall has asked Motability how the data will be stored, who will have access to it, how long it will be kept and for what purposes it will be used, and is questioning whether the use of trackers will breach the Data Protection Act.

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Paralympic Medal-winner says DLA ‘lets us be the best we can be’

A second medal-winning athlete has spoken of how disability living allowance (DLA) has allowed him and other British Paralympians to “be the best we can be”.

David Smith was speaking after losing the BC1 boccia final to an “awesome” performance by the gold medal-winner Pattaya Tadtong, from Thailand. Tadtong won the final 7-0 in front of a packed crowd at the ExCeL centre yesterday (Saturday).

Smith, who won a boccia team gold in Beijing four years ago, said: “He’s got a lot more power than me and a lot of control and I think that was quite evident on the [score] board. I gave it my best shot but he was too classy for me on the day. No regrets, I’m happy.”

Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) about the importance of the support provided by DLA to medal-winning Paralympians such as himself, he said: “I think it is very important that we have an opportunity to be the best we can be, to enable us to participate in society.

“By giving us the opportunity to be the best we can, we can then contribute. We don’t want everything to be made easy. We just want to be able to have equal footing, so we can get on with our lives and help society.”

Smith is studying aerospace engineering at Swansea University and hopes to work as an engineer, but because he now has a car he can drive himself, obtained through the Motability car scheme, and paid for with his DLA mobility component, his “options are open”.

He said: “[My] options are open now because I have a new car that I can drive myself and it is awesome, with hand controls and all that.”

When Motability rolled out its three millionth car last October, Smith, a powerchair-user, was in Westminster Hall to receive the keys from the Queen.

His new car had been adapted so he could drive himself for the first time, rather than having to be a passenger in the back, as he had been with his previous car.

Research for the WeareSparticus campaign in June, published in Reversing from Recovery: The Hidden Costs of Welfare Reform, found a likely 17 per cent reduction in the number of disabled people eligible for a Motability vehicle as a result of coalition cuts.

But despite stressing the importance of DLA, Smith declined to express concern for the estimated 20 per cent of DLA claimants set to lose the right to support over the next few years as a result of the cuts.

Asked if he was concerned about the 20 per cent cuts to DLA spending, he said: “It depends. There obviously can be improvements in terms of efficiencies, in terms of people that do not necessarily need the money.

“If they do it well and they analyse it properly and they are fair to everybody, then everybody has got to tighten their belts a little bit.

“Personally, I am philosophical. If it happens, it happens, but as long as it is fair to everybody then it should be OK.”

When asked how he would feel if some of Britain’s Paralympians were to lose their DLA over the next few years, he said: “It’s tough. It’s a tough way to go. It’s difficult. People are going to have their own opinions on what they need and what they don’t.”

But he added: “As long as it’s fair to everybody, as long as people aren’t cut out unfairly, and as long as it’s not just done in some office somewhere and [in an] ‘off the table’ kind of thing, then I think people will have to accept it.”

When DNS said that 500,000 disabled people could lose their right to DLA over the next few years [by 2015-16], he said: “It is a lot. Then there is a lot of other people that are losing benefits, not just disabled people but the whole system, so I think if we can make it fair and it is equal for everybody, then…”

He had earlier spoken of his hopes that the Paralympics were leading to people becoming “more positive about disability in terms of what we can achieve in life, how we can [have] a positive impact on society, not just [believe we are] a burden on someone else’s ankles”.

He added: “I think that is important and long may that attitude continue. Everybody can contribute.

“Some people need a little bit of a helping hand but if you give them that opportunity, be it a blade or a wheelchair to move around then they can be citizens of society and we can all move Britain forward.”

When Smith began playing boccia, there was little financial support for the sport in Britain, and he even had to fund taking part in his first major championships, which cost him £2,500, including the expense of paying for personal assistants.

But after the boccia team’s success in Beijing four years ago, the sport received “a lot of funding” from UK Sport. They now have two physiotherapists who are “soft-tissue experts”, and a sports psychologist, as well as a statistician, who can provide crucial tactical advice about how to take on different opponents.

He said the London 2012 games themselves had been “amazing”. “The whole Paralympics has been perfect, so much better than Beijing. The [athletes’] village has been wonderful.”

And he said he hoped the London 2012 Paralympics would encourage many more disabled people to take up boccia. “It is a great game for a lot of disabled people who do not get the chance to compete in sport. Boccia is one of those games that gives you the opportunity.”

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Anger as editor tells Motability-users to ‘hang heads in shame’ after London 2012

The editor of a local newspaper has angered disability hate crime campaigners by telling users of Motability vehicles that they should “hang their heads in shame” in comparison with medal-winning Paralympians.

Two editorials written in consecutive weeks by Toby Hines, owner and editor of the weekly Helston News and Advertiser in Cornwall, are the first examples seen by Disability News Service (DNS) of public figures using the exploits of Paralympians to attack disabled benefit claimants.

In an editorial on 4 September, Hines attacked “fake disabled” people, who he says have “a Motability car, blue badge, extra £100 per week of benefits, got a limp or mahoosive (sic) fat gut”.

He said such “fake” disabled people “do not work or contribute to society one iota and just sponge and bitch all day while sitting at home eating cream cakes watching Loose Women”, and compared them with Paralympians, who were “genuine people with some bad disabilities but not giving into them and actually trying to overcome them”.

Hines, who has a disabled son, added: “You can tell someone has a real disability as they deny it.”

In the second editorial, this week, he praised former racing driver Alex Zanardi, who won a Paralympic hand-cycling gold medal last week, and added: “Fascinating comparison to the people I see climbing out of motability (sic) cars in town and at Tesco who should hang their heads in shame.”

Steve Paget, chair of Disability Cornwall, said his organisation had complained several years ago to Hines about his “vitriolic and misinformed” editorials.

He said: “Having an understanding of one disability, whether yours or your child’s, does not give you a deeper insight into other conditions, so it would be interesting to know how Mr Hines feels he can spot what he terms a ‘faker’?

“In all the years that Disability Cornwall have been working with local disabled people, we can only ever recall one solitary case where it was felt the person we were advising may have had a somewhat dubious claim for a disability benefit.”

He added: “The next edition of our lifestyle magazine, Discover, features the alarming fact that hate crimes against disabled people are soaring across the country.

“Ill-judged comments such as that peddled by Mr Hines is just the sort of misinformed hysterical rhetoric we never need to see in print. A retraction is the very least Mr Hines should now be considering.”

Katharine Quarmby, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and author of Scapegoat, a ground-breaking investigation into disability hate crime, said it was “extremely worrying” to read the two editorials.

She said: “Journalists should understand that they have a responsibility to report stories without sensation and with context – for example, pointing out that the levels for disability benefit fraud are extremely low.

“I am worried that such reporting could incite violence against disabled people and I would encourage this journalist to refrain from making claims about fraudulent claimants he cannot substantiate…”

Hines told DNS he was “quite notorious” for having a low tolerance of “false claimants”, but said he should have made it clear these were the people he was attacking in his second article.

He confirmed that he was not medically qualified, and accepted that many people with Motability vehicles had jobs.

When asked whether he was aware that many Paralympians also have Motability vehicles, he said: “I have no problem with anyone with a disability who takes what they are entitled to.

“I would be angry with people who swing the lead, exaggerate the situation, take benefits where they are probably not quite entitled or not entitled to, but then cast doubt or make it difficult for people with genuine situations.”

He said he would be “very careful not to repeat” his comment about people with Motability cars having to “hang their heads in shame”, which he said was “a mistake” that he would correct in the next edition of his newspaper.

He added: “Obviously, any Paralympian isn’t [in] a fake situation. They are a genuine illness person.”

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Government ‘used Motability claims to stir up hostility’

The government has been accused again of stirring up hostility against disabled people and running a “deliberate smearing campaign”, after stories appeared in national newspapers about alleged abuse of the Motability car scheme.

A Sunday Times “investigation” claimed friends and relatives were misusing the cars that disabled people have obtained through the Motability scheme, while the Daily Mail described this misuse as a “scam”.

The Sunday Times claimed government officials were concerned that the disabled people’s car scheme had “mushroomed out of control” and was “so generous that it encourages people to submit spurious claims or to try to keep a benefit to which they are no longer entitled”.

The Mail said the government “hopes that its planned reform of the disability living allowance (DLA) will help stamp out such abuses by introducing closer scrutiny of the system and considering whether Motability is the best option for everyone”.

Many disabled activists are convinced that the source of the story was within the government, which they say is trying to soften up the public for cuts to spending on DLA and its replacement with a new personal independence payment (PIP).

Anne Novis, a leading disability hate crime campaigner, said the story “smacks of government preparing to withdraw DLA and Motability schemes or tighten them exclusively to those they deem ‘severely disabled’”.

She added: “Any scheme can be abused but the fact that this and other statements about disabled people’s benefits, allowances and support being misused are coming out from Whitehall almost every week indicates a deliberate smearing campaign against us as disabled people.

“We are cursed, reviled, demeaned at every turn because people now think they have ‘permission’ from government to treat us this way.”

Novis has given evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) inquiry into disability-related harassment that disabled people’s cars have been “repeatedly vandalized” and set on fire over the last few years.

She added: “For the government to now incite such misunderstandings about the Motability schemes will incite more hostility towards us yet again.”

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK (DM UK), said she also believed the stories would stir up further hostility towards disabled people.

She said she said she would be “absolutely appalled” if the government was behind the stories.

Last week, DM UK completed its Alps Challenge, in which disabled volunteers recreated a 1,500 mile journey across the Alps in 1947 on a petrol-driven tricycle to highlight the importance of providing mobility support to disabled people.

Dolphin said: “The Alps Challenge was to demonstrate how far we had come since 1947, with fantastic adaptations and the fact that we do have Motability and DLA to pay for it, but it seems when you read articles like this that people would like us to step backwards to when we were pushing people around in little blue trikes.”

Motability said its scheme was abused only by “a small minority” of people, while the “overwhelming majority of our customers are hugely deserving individuals with real physical impairments”.

In 2010/11, about 800 people were removed from the scheme for abuse, out of 580,000 customers – less than 0.14 per cent.

Another 500 people were prevented from joining or renewing their agreements, but Motability said many of these were due to driving convictions and so unrelated to misuse.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Motability is an independent charity which is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the scheme and DWP has regular reviews to monitor its performance.

“Motability provides a vital service for disabled people.  However, any misuse of taxpayers’ money is unacceptable and it is essential that we get the gateway to receipt of DLA right, which is why we are introducing the PIP.”

But when asked whether the story originated from the DWP and was another attempt to soften up the public in advance of cuts and reforms of DLA, she declined to comment.

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