Seven Questions to Ask About the Cuts to Access to Work

Seven Questions to Ask About the Cuts to Access to Work

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As I’m sure most of you have heard, a couple of weeks ago Lord Freud suggested that some people with disabilities may not be worth the minimum wage, and some could be paid £2 an hour instead for employment.  His off-hand statement has of course garnered a backlash including calls for his resignation and a petition asking for him to be fired. Lord Freud has since apologised, releasing a statement stating that he has been “proud to have played a full part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment.”

However, this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The government have in fact done the opposite and driven many people with disabilities out of work, by cutting vital support in the form of the Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment transfer; removing Independent Living Fund, cutting funds to councils for Direct Payments and reducing what support Access to Work will fund.  These cuts tell a different story, and leave many people with disabilities having to reduce their hours, change the type of work they can do or leave employment entirely.

Working with a disability can often be very difficult, both in terms of securing employment, the on-going difficulties some face with juggling their health and work, as well as employers and colleagues attitudes.

What is Access to Work?

Access to Work is a scheme set up a number of years ago with the aim of helping people with disabilities attain and remain in work.  It’s worth around £80m a year, and can be used to pay for a range of equipment, adaptations and assistance. However changes have been quietly happening to the scheme, putting much more of the onus on the employer to fund this support.

Instead of suggesting people with disabilities should work for less than half that of a non-disabled person, the government should instead be increasing funding for Access to Work, and promoting it to employers.  Many still do not know it exists, or what kind of help it can provide.

Employers often think that the implication of employing a person with a disability will be that they will cost more, and sadly due to the subtle cuts to Access to Work this is becoming true in some cases.

How did the scheme previously work?

At the time I had my first Access to Work assessment the rules were that if you applied for an assessment within your first six weeks of work, they’d usually cover the cost of any disability-related equipment/support required, and after six weeks it would be down to the size of the company.  For a smaller employer they’d still pay, for a medium sized company they’d contribute, and for a larger firm they’d expect them to pay.  This was a pretty fair system – and it reduced the risk that a disabled person would not be offered a role because of the extra cost for their support.  In that first job I was given a range of items to help me – from a specialist chair, to smaller items that made life easier, such as an electric hole punch/stapler.

How has that changed?

They have now decreed that the company has to pay for pretty much everything.

So by the time I changed jobs and was taken on by a small charity, the rules meant almost everything I’d had funded previously was now not covered by the scheme.  My new assessment asked for a specialist chair that included heat to try and ease muscle spasms, a desk that could be raised, an £80 headset so I could answer the phone, a recording device or electronic notepad for taking notes in meetings and numerous other items that directly related to my disability and the role I was doing.

The bill was thousands.  My Access to Work Advisor managed to get the chair funded, as the heat function pushed it past a standard item, but what was left was still a lot of money.

I’d just convinced that company to take a chance on me, and had already had to bring up all the reasonable adjustments I needed from them, and now I was supposed to hand them a huge bill?  So instead I looked over the list and decided what I really, really needed, and what I could live without even if it made life more difficult, or more painful.  Only then did I hand my list over, with my fingers crossed they didn’t find a way to get rid of me.  I really didn’t want to be seen as more hassle than the non-disabled person they’d picked me over.

What impact has this had?

Statistics show that disabled people are much more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. So my fears that employers see disabled people as more costly are true. It’s very short-sighted of the government, as funding the one-off bill for equipment a disabled person may need to work, could keep that person in a job rather than having to pay for much longer term benefits.

What won’t they fund?

The list of items Access to Work will no longer fund include chairs, electronic adjustable desks, perching stools, back wedges, analogue hearing aids, laptops, temporary wheelchair ramps, voice recorders, anything to do with phones (i.e. headsets, mobiles, etc), writing slopes, staplers, hole punches, and much more.

The fact is that many of those items cost significantly more for a disabled person than a standard work, or  the item wouldn’t be required at all without a disability.  For example the ergonomic keyboard I was provided cost approximately £60.  A standard keyboard is around £20, and probably cheaper if buying in bulk for a whole office. A standard hole punch is around £2.99 and a stapler similar. The electronic one I was provided was £40. These prices soon add up, including a specialist chair without the heated function (£600+), electronic height adjustable desk (£500+) and a laptop for home working (£700+).

What about people that have longer term support in place?

The changes have impacted them also. Those that do have long-term support paid for by Access to Work, such as personal assistants, daily transportation or interpreters are now finding they are having their support constantly reviewed, sometimes even on a month-to-month basis which means they are under a huge amount of stress that the support they rely on could be pulled, or reduced at any moment. Other people are being told that high levels of support are only available to people in certain professions and that their work won’t be covered under the scheme.

The government are shooting themselves in the foot here because by funding the support that somebody needs – for example a personal assistant, means that two people are being employed. Otherwise they’ve got two people on benefits, while they’re pumping millions into coming up with new schemes run by private companies to put pressure onto these people to find employment.

They’re also regularly making changes without a consultation with the user base, or any kind of impact assessment.

How can this be fixed?

People with disabilities don’t want to be told they’re worth less than a non-disabled person, as it’s an incredibly untrue statement.  What they do need to know is if they happen to require support to work (and not all disabled people do of course), is that it will be funded by the scheme that was set up for this exact purpose, and that it won’t be stopped or reduced for superfluous reasons.

Increase and strengthen the funding, and see a happier, less stressed workforce, and not so many having to fall back onto the benefit system.

What have been your experiences with Access to Work?  Has your support changed?  Please comment below with any thoughts/comments on the article.

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A Trip to Suffolk

A Trip to Suffolk

I’ve just got back from a couple of nights away at a lovely cottage in Mildenhall, Suffolk nearby Thetford, called The Walnuts.

The Walnuts
Over the last few years, the distance I can drive, even as a passenger has reduced (see the post Cars Vs Sleeping). It’s usually about an hour as the maximum. However, I also find that it’s very rare for me to be in a car for longer than five minutes, without falling asleep!

I don’t usually go away for long, as my cats get stressed in the cattery, so if I do get a chance to go away, it’s as close to home as possible. It’s a shame as I’ve love to see more of the country, but there are some beautiful places nearby so I’m lucky.

One way I’ve found to slightly increase the distance I can travel is to recline the seat right back, and cover it in pillows. I’m usually asleep before we get on the motorway, and only wake up when we arrive! It helps reduce the pressure on my spine, so I’m not such a mess when I get there.

The Walnuts had a Groupon offer, which I sadly just missed, but when I phoned to book the owner was kind enough to honour it. The deal included a BBQ pack, but there are other options if this doesn’t appeal to you.

In terms of accessibility, there are a number of cottages on site, and all except one have the bedroom/s upstairs. The one that didn’t is called ‘Inglenooks’ and has everything downstairs, so that’s the one I stayed in. One of the good things for me about going away for just two nights, is the battery in my wheelchair lasts that long, so I can leave it in the car.  That I don’t have to worry about getting it in the cottage.  There is parking directly outside the cottage, which is handy if you can’t walk far.

Walnuts Cottage

The cottage wouldn’t be suitable for a full-time wheelchair user, as it doesn’t have level access. Each room has a raised threshold (not a step, but more than enough to stop a chair.) There is enough space for a manual wheelchair to be folded up, or stored in the bedroom, or living room – so if you don’t need to use it all the time, but want it keep it with you that’s an option. The biggest step is the one leading into the private garden. There is no bath, just a shower, and there is a small step into it.

The threshold into the bathroom

The threshold into the bathroom

The larger step into the garden

The larger step into the garden

We received a warm welcome when we arrived for one of the owners, and he showed us how everything works including the private hot tub. It was quite chilly when we arrived, as the weather had suddenly turned cold, and so he lit the open fire in the bedroom.

The fire lit

The fire lit

My first impressions were very good. The living room contained a sofa and a table and chairs. The flat screen TV was placed on a lovely book-style table, that opened to find a selection of DVDs and menus. The lamp was quirky and made out of a stack of tea-cups.

Aren't these nice!  Two books, with the top one containing two drawers

 

lamp

 

The bedroom holds a queen size four poster bed, and another flat-screen TV on the wall. There are nice little touches like fresh flowers on the dresser, and chocolates on the bed. There is a sofa and arm chair next to the open fire, and a book shelf with a small range of books – and it was lovely to sit next to the fire and read.

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In the bathroom they had provided towels, robes, shampoo/conditioner, body moisturiser and body wash.

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Waiting in the kitchen was a large breakfast hamper containing bread, jams, marmalades and honey. A range of cereals and porridge, salt and black pepper, fruit, tea/coffees and cookies. In the fridge juice, milk, beer, wine, butter, yoghurts and bottles of water. In addition was the BBQ pack, which included a range of meat, portable BBQ, marshmallows and sticks! There is also free wifi, and each TV can play DVDs.

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Also in the garden along with the hot tub is a place to sit, and a real BBQ, but our attempt to light it failed!

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One of the owners also provides treatments – including relaxing massages, beauty treatments or full-packages, although the room for this is up a steep flight of stairs. She did manage to provide a downstairs room for my treatments, so definitely mention this when you book.

The only negative for me was that the sofa was pretty uncomfortable, which made it hard to relax. Most people I’d imagine would use their cottage as a base to sight-see, but the weather kept us in a lot, and so this was a pain for me. (Quite literally!)

All in all, a lovely stay, and I’d love to come again in the summer months when the garden could be made full use of.

 

Have you had any nice trips away this year?  Tell me about them in the comments below!

 

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Three Innovative Solutions to Accessibility Problems

A Wheelchair Hoist with a Difference

This amazing hoist is perfect for full-time wheelchair users, but also part-time users who find it difficult to stand at the back of the car to operate the hoist (which can be pretty slow).  The only problem is the huge weight difference between a manual chair and an electric.  I would imagine a hoist like this would struggle with an electric chair, but hopefully this will be the future.  It would also allow smaller cars to be used, when people don’t want to drive vans in order to transport their chair.

A Hidden Lift

How many times do you find the ramp or lift into a building is tucked around the back of a building?  Or it’s resented for spoiling the aesthetics of a building?   Think of all the historical locations that have no access at all.  This is the perfect solution – the look of the building can be kept and the ramp can be located in the most convenient location.  It looks like in this video a second person is needed to operate it, so as long as that could be resolved, this is ideal.

Converting a Manual Chair into a Scooter

These have been around for awhile, but it’s nice seeing a video of one, and how easy it is to use.  A lot of people use manual chairs, but may struggle on longer distances, rougher terrains or hills.  This looks like it could be kept in the back of the car to be used when needed, and looks really fun too!

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Which is your favourite innovative accessibility solution?  What do you hope they’ll invent one day?

11 Tips for Learning to Drive with a Disability

11 Tips for Learning to Drive with a Disability

I found learning to drive really difficult.  I had lessons over two years, and I don’t even want to begin to work out the cost of that.  Neither of my parents had a car, and so my lessons were my only chance to practise.

I found it hard to coordinate everything due to my then undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and had awful muscle pain from using them in a different way.  I could never have more than an hour lesson as my ankle and foot would go dead, and I found it all very exhausting.   In addition, I was also very nervous/anxious, and just thinking about my test caused me to shake like a leaf, which then made me make loads of stupid mistakes.

But my worst mistake was my choice of instructor.  I picked a lady who stated she specialised with nervous drivers – but this couldn’t be more wrong.  Her style of teaching was to keep quiet while I drove, but then ask me to pull over and ask “Where do you think you went wrong on the roundabout five minutes ago?”  When I didn’t know/couldn’t remember she’d get cross.  She spent all the lesson pointing out my mistakes, with the atmosphere getting more fraught.

As time went on, I found instead of growing in confidence I became totally convinced I would never pass.  It felt too awkward to ‘fire’ her, so I continued with this situation for far too long, ending numerous lessons in tears.

I then went to university, which gave me an opportunity to get a new instructor.  He was completely different – calm, more positive and quickly my confidence began to increase.   I decided that before I took my test I wanted some more intensive lessons – more than the one a week I was having, but my packed university schedule meant that was impossible.  So I spent my Easter break having lessons every day for two weeks, with a test at the end.

I failed.

However, it wasn’t the total disaster I thought it would be.  I got a major for hesitation because on the way back to the test centre a bus stopped in the middle of the road.  I couldn’t see around it, and being quite a busy road I thought I’d be likely to meet on-coming traffic if I went ahead.  We waited about thirty seconds, and then continued – but I apparently should have gone.  I think it was a little harsh, but there you go.

My second test was back in my university town.  I was a hundred times more terrified.  My legs were shaking so hard I kept stalling, and I made silly mistakes.  At one point I tried to start the car three times in a row, and it kept stalling.  I couldn’t understand why, until I realised I hadn’t put it into gear.

As we pulled up back at the test centre, my instructor who was waiting outside looked over to see how I’d done.  I shook my head.  I’d been a mess.  My test examiner asked what I’d just said to him, and I said I didn’t think I had any chance of passing.  She responded, “Well I disagree.”  She then handed me the pass certificate.

I can’t even begin to explain how I felt.  I know everyone feels joy at passing their test, but I had convinced myself so thoroughly I would never ever pass, and it had taken so long, and being able to drive was completely life changing.  I think it does take on an added meaning when you have mobility problems.

At that point my mobility was going downhill rapidly, and I was struggling to get around the university, and also the long trip home on the train (through London on the tube).  But overnight my world opened up – I could get to the shops, see friends, and go home whenever I wanted.

That was almost six years ago.  I was lucky I took my test before my condition got like it is now – I’d really stuggle with the lessons, but there is lots of help available to help people with disabilities.

Here are some tips I learned in the process to help you pass when you have a disability:

  1. You need to be comfortable with your driving instructor.  Even if they’re nice, or you’re scared of hurting their feelings – it’s your money, your time and it needs to be right.
  2. Make sure they fit your learning style.  I tend to do a lot better when someone tells me what I did right, instead of making me feel bad by making a big deal out of everything that went wrong. Either explain that to them and hope they’ll adjust to your learning style, or move on if they don’t.
  3. Explain your health issues to them.  They can make adjustments – such as trying to make the seat more comfortable, mixing in practical parts of the lesson so you get a break, or pointing the direction they want you go as well as saying right/left if you have any processing issues.
  4. Your instructor can request you assessor points the direction they wish you to go in your test as well as saying left/right if you have dyslexia or processing issues.
  5. If you can provide supporting evidence, you can request additional time while taking your Theory Test or Practical.  Make sure to explain any physical issues to your examiner so they’re aware if you struggle to turn, or whatever the issue is.  You can also ask for a disability specialist assessor, who should have had additional training in this area.
  6. Make sure you detail all your needs when booking either your practical or your theory.  The last thing you want when you’ve just arrived at the centre when you’re so nervous you can’t think straight is to start having to point out things that aren’t accessible to you.  And if you’ve already told them, you’ve covered yourself and it isn’t your problem – it’s theirs.
  7. If you can’t make it to the test centre for your Theory Test (for example it’s not accessible to you) it’s sometimes possible to take your theory test at your home.
  8. There are specialist instructors/cars out there if you need an adapted car, or someone used to working with people with disabilities.  Ask for recommendations, or ask bigger driving schools if they have an adapted car on their fleet.
  9. If you receive High Rate Mobility Disability Living Allowance or the Mobility Component of Personal Independence Payment you can apply for your provisional driving licence at the age of 16, instead of the normal 17, which is really helpful.
  10. Motability and other charities sometimes offer assistance towards learning to drive when you have a disability.  If you’re working then it’s also worth approaching Access to Work if driving would enable you to remain in work, or make life easier for assistance with lessons.
  11. If you need help to find the right adapted car for you, places like the Forum of Mobility Centres or the Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People can help.

Remember it may take you longer than someone else, but you will get there in the end.

Also check out this great post by Disabled In Scotland who details adaptations that can be made in the car, and the different route he took to find the right instructor for him.  There are also some great tips here for deaf drivers.

Do you have any tips to share that helped you?  Did you find it a struggle to pass your test, or was it a breeze?

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Disability Access Made Easy!

Disability Access Made Easy!

In Britain we have pretty good disability discrimination legislation.  It’s quite extensive and covers physical access, employment and more.  The Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1995 – eighteen years ago.  It’s been updated and strengthened multiple times since then – in 1996, 1999, 2004 before it finally ceased to exist and was instead included in much broader legislation called the Equality Act 2010.  This included seven different protected characteristics which included disability, and states that if two people with protected characteristics have conflicting needs, then the disabled persons needs comes first.

However, I believe there are two particular flaws with this legislation – the first is getting companies, building owners and service providers to pay attention, fully comprehend and implement the law.

The second flaw is around enforcement.  I will cover this issue in the post ‘Why we’re losing the war on Disability Access.’

Access Made Easy:

1) Access is generally about common sense.  This includes putting a little thought behind decisions such as the layout of shop, and quite simply treating people with disabilities like you’d wish to be treated.  For example – many shops have hearing loop systems, but don’t turn them on, fix them when they break, or train staff how to use the system.  If you put a blue badge space outside your shop door – don’t use it for storage instead!  If you’re installing a ramp to help wheelchair users and those with mobility problems, don’t put it at the back of the building.  The closer it is, the better.  The law states that it’s not enough just to have an adaptation – but to make sure that it’s usable.

2) Access doesn’t have to be expensive.  The law asks for reasonable adjustments, and does make allowances for cost.  It wouldn’t be expected that a small shop knock their entire shop down to replace it with a fully accessible one, or to install a permanent ramp.  There are always ways to improve access though – such as a lightweight ramp that can be moved, a doorbell placed outside to allow people to call for help if needed, a portable hearing loop system, etc.

3) Never underestimate staff training.  I have never had decent Equality and Diversity training, despite working for a range of councils, charities, universities and private businesses.  It’s usually a patronising online module that tells you nothing about what it’s like to be disabled.  There are lots of different kinds of disabilities out there and stereotypes attached to them.  Some are harmful, some are just assumptions.  Some I’ve heard just in the last week include:

• Wheelchair users cannot walk at all because their legs don’t work.

• AHDH is a fad, and is just naughty-child-syndrome.

• If someone is deaf just shout at them.

• If your child has Autism, then you should just be a parent and watch them at all times rather than expect their environment to be made safe.

• Only older people can have mobility problems.

Staff that have good training are going to lessen the chance of causing offensive, having complaints made about them – and more importantly increase the chances of meeting the needs of the customer and getting them to return again.

4) Accessible shops, or places with good customer service will get more custom.  Disabled people have money to spend too.  And to me – a shop that could easily make adjustments and hasn’t says to me “you are not welcome.”  It’s mostly because the shops in the town centre I live in is so hard to get around I moved to mostly online shopping.

A cafe in the town centre that is inaccessible to wheelchair users

A cafe in the town centre that is inaccessible to wheelchair users

A few months ago I wanted to buy a gift for someone, and only had one day to buy it.  My problem, however, was that my wheelchair was out of action.  I checked online to make sure it was in stock, and headed to Homebase.  The item I wanted was a plant – so I hoped if I could park outside the door, and go straight to the plant display nearest the door, I might just make it.  However, I couldn’t see the plant – so I staggered over to customer service, already way past my walking limit.  I explained to the lady I couldn’t stand long and couldn’t find what I wanted.  She immediately brought a chair round to me without asking, then went to find the item, rang it up and called for someone to carry it out to my car for me.  It seems simple, but it was so rare to be treated this way it actually brought tears to my eyes, which I know is pathetic!  I wrote to thank Homebase and the lady in question and hope all their staff are like that.  Next time I need to buy something gardening related – I’ll head to Homebase.

It’s important to note – most people will not complain about the step in the doorway, the packed displays, the till they can’t reach – they just won’t return.

5) New builds – get it right!  While there is a certain level of understanding that it’s harder for older buildings, if you’re creating a new public building then please make an effort.  The town I live in recently opened a massive shiny new art facility that cost £28 million.  I was therefore incredibly disappointed they got some really basic things wrong.  There was a whole list of issues – but a couple of the problems included a disabled toilet with an automatic light that turned off after a minute.  So the person had to get off the toilet, and go outside into the corridor to turn it back on, or have fun in the total darkness.  The second was the disabled parking was blocked off by locked bollards.  In order to park, a wheelchair user had to pull up in the road, get their wheelchair out, head the 30m or so into the building, find a member of staff, wait for them to unlock it, go back to the car, put the wheelchair back, drive into the space, and get the wheelchair back out again.  (For for many non-wheelchair users the distance was too far to reach the building from the road.)  It’s very frustrating when such basic things are done so badly.

Finally: 6) It’s the law so just do it! 

The staff in this shop ignored my attempts to gain access in my wheelchair.  The manager later stated no one else had complained they couldn't gain access.  But how many people didn't even try?

The staff in this shop ignored my attempts to gain access in my wheelchair. The manager later stated no one else had complained they couldn’t gain access. But how many people didn’t even try?

In terms of access,  which simple changes would make your life easier?