Lone voices in the wilderness.

What do you think?

  • Estate agents discriminate against blind seller.
  • Complaint handlers prefer “poor customer service” to admitting breaking equality law.
  • Watchdogs fail to protect us disabled people from illegal discrimination.

I got really depressed a couple of weeks ago:  utterly fed up with constantly being cross and having to complain in the vain effort of trying to get people to do things properly.  Those of us who are madly optimistic might have thought that legislation that has been in place for 20 years about reasonable adjustments and accessible information would have achieved some level of compliance across the public, private and voluntary sectors.  Dream on: even with the Equality Act having been more prescriptive about alternate formats in 2010, there’s still systemic and endemic behaviour that clearly shows that most organisations believe that this legislation is purely optional.  And worse, those watch-dog agencies that are supposed to protect us don’t take any action either.

We are left as lone voices in the wilderness.  So let’s hope that the current House of Lords Select Committee looking at enforcement of the law to protect disabled people has some impact – and kicks the Equality and Human Rights Commission and all the rest in to some sort of action.  After all, we are paying for them.

Meanwhile, I’m struggling to do my bit to fulfil my mother’s wishes.  She died earlier this year and I’m a co-executor of her will – and happen to be blind.  We have been trying to sell her house but the law is completely alien to estate agents.  One (Fox & Sons) simply stopped communicating with me at all after I had asked for accessible Word documentation.  Another (Cubitt and West) clearly had no process of providing me with their terms and conditions in an alternate format – and so they suggested that I should find another estate agent that “would suit me better”.  The house sale forms provided by the Law Society again are only available in an inaccessible format – my solicitor had to read them aloud to me and the same was needed for HMRC’s huge 80 page inaccessible Inheritance Tax forms.  The clear message is that I’m not allowed to have such responsibilities because I’m blind.  It’s no wonder that disabled people have problems getting jobs when so much everyday stuff is stacked against us!

I was trying to be green by recycling a mobile phone to a friend and we got tied up in the nausea of “unlocking”.  It took over 45 minutes on the phone with me repeatedly telling the 3 agent that I couldn’t provide all the information they wanted because I was blind.  She didn’t seem to grasp the concept and simply cut me off when I asked for the supervisor.  Their Executive Team maintained that it had just been “poor customer service” and that I couldn’t have experienced discrimination, harassment and victimisation because they had an “Accessibility Team”, whether or not that extra help had been offered to me!   It’s like being told that you can’t be bleeding because we have got a First Aid kit – even though it’s locked away.  And they absolutely didn’t want to categorise my complaint as a breach of equality law.  Now do I struggle on to complain to OFCOM?  Probably but with no hope of any action as I suspect that they similarly don’t monitor the real cause of “poor customer service”.

Last time I complained to the Financial Conduct Authority about repeated discrimination across the financial services industry, they sent the usual asinine response – similar to that from the Government’s Chief Medical Officer when suggesting that poor communications with us probably contribute to the significantly worse health outcomes of blind and Deaf people.

If those with authority at every level don’t take responsibility for monitoring unlawful action, is there any prospect of us disabled people being able to play our part in life and society?  It is just an endless battle of us “little people” with all those impersonal big organisations that have decided that it is easier and cheaper to take the risk of mistreating us when no-one is going to take any notice or action.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Equality for disabled people

What do you think? • Have 5 years of the Equality Act made any difference for disabled people? • Will House of Lords review of equality legislation make any improvement for disabled people? • Do disabled people face systemic and institutionalised discrimination?

There has been a recent call for evidence from The House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability as part of their review of whether the legislation is working for disabled people.   Drawing on previous blogs over a couple of years, I sent them the following comments – and couldn’t hope to cover all the other areas in which we still aren’t getting an equal chance.

Without doubt, five years of legislation have had limited positive benefit for disabled people and, in some ways, their situation is probably worse.  This is particularly true in relation to the failings of the Public Sector Equality Duties. The Government initiative to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential and have equality of opportunity by 2025 has become a creature of smoke and mirrors, shackled by austerity cuts, deaf to the legislation’s demands during policy creation and blinkered to it’s requirements in delivery.  The generous amongst us may believe these failings are simply oversights of lazy, broad-brush policy thinkers whereas the more cynical may perceive systemic and institutionalised discrimination emanating from the very heart of the nation’s public sector.  Would other laws be flouted so blatantly?  How can we possibly hope that employers, businesses and others will comply and make a difference when it is so obvious that the public sector does not?

 Perhaps the answer is really simple?  The majority of “disabled” people (about two thirds of us according to the Office for Disability Issues research) wouldn’t use this label about themselves.   So we are very unlikely to have any homogenous coordinated political voice.  Would another 20% of the electorate be ignored so consistently?

 One wonders how these public policies, practices and procedures will be squared with the protection afforded by the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People when the UK’s performance is next reviewed.

 Just a few examples of issues that have been publicly evidenced over recent years:

Life chances:

  • Prisoners.  The 2014 Ministry of Justice report was lamentable (out-of-date data and disability definitions) but did reveal that the proportion of prisoners with limiting long-term health conditions was about twice that in the general population.  Does this mean that, as a nation, we manage some impairments through the criminal justice system or does the system itself create those impairments – or both?  We are probably unimpressed by other nations that imprison disproportionate numbers of those from, say, ethnic minorities but seem to barely raise an eyebrow at similarly skewed outcomes of our home-grown justice system.
  • Bedroom Tax.  There is a disproportionately higher level of disabled people in social housing.  They are more likely to be receiving housing benefits.  It is good news that there has been more flexibility in waiving “bedroom tax” for those disabled people who need extra space for their impairment-related equipment.    But how were their needs considered when the policy was created and the rules designed?
  • Disproportionately poor health outcomes.  The Chief Medical Officer’s 2014 report highlighted that people with visual (like me) or hearing impairments are more likely to acquire dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, other long-term health conditions, anxiety or stress and have less confidence in managing our health.    Yet suggestions to her that a key issue is the failure of the health sector to communicate effectively with us using alternative formats, auxiliary aids etc received just the response that Equality Act compliance rests with individual health providers.  So where is the leadership and policy drive to redress the situation and implement the legislation?  The consequences are not just discriminatory but life threatening.

Employment issues.  My primary interest area:

  • Increased age requirements for State pensions.  Expecting people to work longer before they can claim their state Retirement Pension goes hand-in-hand with an ageing population.  But does all the supporting policy make this feasible for that majority of disabled people who acquire their impairments during their working lives (some 70% according to DWP).  It is very well known that propensity for disability increases with age (under 5% of those starting their careers which more than quadruples to 23% of those approaching retirement).  So, let’s have the policy but make sure that it works in reality by tailoring and delivering employment legislation, practices and support accordingly rather than jeopardising the livelihoods of even more people with impairments.
  • Work Programme and Work Choice.  The original concept was good: help people to get back to work.    But it needed much more attention to practical realities to avoid disproportionate outcomes for disabled people.  Instead, flawed funding models, poor contract management and insufficient specialist delivery has left those facing most work barriers still on the shelf.  Overall, it looks as if the improvement in the economy is probably the biggest factor in the employability of jobseekers whereas publicly-funded employment support has more potential impact amongst disabled benefit claimants.  But this depends on good delivery: holistic, individual, specialist, tailored, flexible, local with all adjustments in place and empathetic, experienced front-line teams – so quite different from much current delivery.
  • Employment and Support Allowance, Work capability Assessments and Access To Work (ESA, WCA and ATW).  These should be the three pillars that help disabled people get back to work.  But a 2014 Select Committee report described WCA as de-humanising and distressing, stressful, confusing, uncertainty and more.  Another Select Committee report the same year was similarly highly critical of the ATW system for providing in-work support for disabled people and said it required substantial improvement (and those self-employed have had a particularly hard time).   So, with two legs buckling if not actually broken, are the policies properly in place to give us equality of opportunity?  Instead, it seems that unlawful discrimination and harassment are endemic in the delivery systems.
  • New Enterprise Allowance.  Where is the evidence that the policy design and delivery detail for this initiative took account of the needs of disabled people?    It should have been a basic consideration that then merited even higher attention because disabled people are the largest and most costly group of unemployed people and, as shown by the 2011 Census, those who work are more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled peers.  Of course, some disabled entrepreneurs will have survived the judgemental processes and inadequate timescales but was the real potential of the initiative fully realised?  We receive phone calls and e-mails from across the UK each time one of our new disabled business owners is featured by the BBC –showing that the demand is there but the NEA is not hitting the mark.

Return to the old box-ticking equality impact assessment processes would just risk resistance to bureaucratic red tape.  But we know that one-size doesn’t fit all.  Instead those creating and delivering public policies need to undertake more robust success and risk impact assessments that address equality issues.  Where citizens with protected characteristics such as disability will be most affected by a policy, those characteristics need to be at the heart of decision making and delivery design in order to be successful.  “Most affected” means that disabled people (or other protected groups) may experience positive or negative consequences at disproportionately higher levels in relation to either/both the overall population or individual impact.

There is an untapped resource of experts with practical experience who can contribute to shared goals alongside those in the Government Departments that most affect disabled people.  Utilising them offers more chance of getting policy and delivery right from the outset rather than years of subsequent criticism and costly change.

Current enforcement seems patchy at best and very difficult for individuals to access.  While there is scope for improving enforcement, it is highly preferable for those in the public sector to be better motivated from the outset by recognising that effective consideration of disability issues will improve the success of their policies.  More carrot than stick!

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Inaccessible health care penalises disabled people

Did you know? Inaccessible health care probably causes long-term health problems for some disabled people. Cross Country Trains abdicate responsibility for disabled passenger.

I talked about the Chief Medical Officer’s report a couple of weeks ago and how blind people are “more likely to have other long-term health conditions”. I think a key aspect of this is how difficult and expensive it can be for us to participate in health care. I moaned on about one hospital since and here’s another example:
This week I had one of those routine mammograms – the one where they squeeze your boobs in some clunking machine (one wonders as to the gender of the inventor!). The clinical staff were excellent, professional and quick. But the surrounding processes just didn’t work. So, even though they know to send me the results by e-mail, the system can’t manage to do the same with the appointment details.
Lots of people can pop in to the mobile units when it is in their vicinity – but not some of us with impairments. Instead we have to trek off to the local hospital which is a £35 round trip by taxi or probably at least 5 hours by patient transport. But for those who can’t afford to use taxis or can’t take all that time off work, its no surprise that they wouldn’t manage to have the scan.
And even having checked that there would be someone available to escort me from reception to the appointment and arrived early, it would have been so useful to have known beforehand that it usually takes 20 minutes for that escort to arrive. Hence, late for appointment and one’s slot has been taken while the taxi meter ticks away!
The only advantage is that, if you have a disabled parking card, you get 24 hours parking compared with just the one hour that everyone else gets. Perhaps this reflects their assessment of how long it will take us to get our health care compared with others? I know, that’s rather churlish!
Once again, it’s not the medical and clinical care that falls short. It’s the management of the surrounding processes that just haven’t been thought through meaning that people don’t take part and their health suffers.

Disability Floristry Art

Disability Floristry Art

Bouquets of the week.
Two this time: To all the representatives of the Help to Work partners – organisations that help people get back to work. We ran a frantic and whirlwind “speed-dating” morning so that we could all learn what each other offers. Getting the rotation right so that everyone meets everyone else is trickier than you would think – and is utterly scuppered when some show up unexpectedly, split their groups and move in different directions! It was a bit like herding cats but thank goodness that so much enthusiasm, good will and flexibility meant that we all muddled through and got loads from it all. Huge thanks to everyone who came.
To the train staff who did their very best to help all of us passengers when our train was involved in a fatal incident later the same day. My heart goes out to the driver now coping with the enquiry after we hit someone on the track between Coventry and Leamington Spa – and to the family and friends of the person who was killed. We were all very subdued while waiting hours until the British Transport Police arrived to take charge and our train could move to the next station. Having decamped to the platform, two harried staff tried to manage the invasion. I declined their kind offer of a taxi taking me home from Leamington Spa – the next train was going to be quicker. Then a taxi from Winchester was organised but, when we got there, Cross Country Trains reneged on the offer. So, minutes later, I was at Southampton Parkway with no taxi home organised. Cross Country Trains wanted me to go even further by train, make yet another change and make the journey probably another hour longer! As it was, I still didn’t get home until over 9 hours after leaving Bolsover. My thanks to Leila of the train team who explained the loo to me – cleaner than I’d expected – but she now has to retire as she can’t manage to push the heavy refreshment trolley any more! They’ve lost a great member of staff.

Yours wearily,

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000