Thursday, 9 July 2009
It’s often said that “The Law is an Ass” and nothing could be truer based on recent changes in legislation that potentially effect hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and those with mobility problems. I’m referring of course to the decision to change the tax arrangements for mobility scooters – the battery-powered chairs that you often see elderly and disabled people using to go along the pavement or round supermarkets – and class them as ordinary vehicles, in the same league as expensive cars and event F1 Grand Prix cars. Someone in Governemnt has obviously little or no sense, as there is a world of difference between a petrol-powered car with a top speed of hundreds of miles per hour, and a range of several hundred miles, and an electric scooter with a top speed of around 6 miles per hour, and enough battery power to get you to the shops and back!
I never cease to wonder at the lack of common sense amongst those governing this country, and the lip service that is paid to the needs of disabled people. All sorts of rights are enshrined in legislation, and even though government departments trumpet their commitment to equality of opportunity and access for all, the reality is very different. I can think of many visits to JobCentre Plus offices, where access has been via flights of stairs and where doorways have been too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through, or where there is insufficient seating for elderly and sick people to rest, let alone space for a mobility scooter!
Fortunately, Elizabeth Finn Care seems to have come to the rescue! With some high level support from people such as Professor Stephen Hawking there has been a well-publicised campaign to reverse these taxation changes for mobility scooters, so let’s hope that a victory is on the cards. It seems an obscenity to slap taxes on low-powered scooters that can make the difference between a disabled person being trapped in their home, or having a bit of freedom to go shopping, visit friends down the road, or simply get some fresh air… The things that able-bodied people, especially Government Ministers and civil servants, take for granted!
Like millions of other people I have been enjoying the thrills of Wimbledon over the past week or so, and was full of excitement as the prospect of Andy Murray making it to the Men’s finals drew nearer. Sadly this was not to be, but the men’s final turned out to be spell-binding, with epithets such as “epic” and “monumental” being bandied around by the commentators. It’s at times like this that I have cause to be thankful for the delights of BBC Radio 5 Live, who provided magnificent coverage and superb entertainment. Since losing my sight a couple of years ago I’ve really come to appreciate the joys of radio sports coverage, as obviously TV commentators assume that everyone can see what is happening. As is often said, radio has the best pictures!
I’m not knocking the consummate skill and artistry of Roger Federer or the Williams sisters, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of a change next year and see some fresh new faces? But I guess that is as likely as Manchester United and Chelsea not being at the top of the Premier League!
Thursday, 5 March 2009
And so it was that a motley collection of us assembled by the seaside to explore some of these challenges. The majority of people were over retirement age; however, a number of us were still of working-age. Sadly, we all had to stop working because of the onset of severe vision impairment. As a group, the causes of sight loss were varied: in some cases this had taken place gradually over a period of time, in a couple of cases onset had been very rapid, and in one case sight loss occurred overnight due to surgical complications. What we all shared, however, was the sense of grief and loss: the difficulty of accepting that we had to live with a disability, the complexities of navigating oneself around “the system”, and how varied support was from one part of the country to another.
One of the more interesting things I found was that provision of services was very much a “postcode lottery”; some NHS Trusts and local authorities were exemplary in the care and treatment that they provided, others far less so. It was good to discover that services within my own part of London (Lambeth) and the care provided by the local St Thomas’s Hospital, were well above average. It was also good to learn that I had been well looked after in respect of referral to the Low Vision Clinic at my local hospital, where the NHS provides a range of somewhat basic magnifiers and optical devices to help with some day-to-day living needs. It was also apparent that - although I had had to wait a long time to see her - the local authority rehabilitation worker had been good in her provision of some basic aids, such as my white stick, and in training to help me get around outdoors in my area. Some of the other participants had been less fortunate and it appeared they had received the bare minimum.
Many of us shared a common experience in that eye consultants were often a little bit reluctant to register patients as either blind or partially sighted; RNIB staff confirmed this. We put it down to the fact that doctors in this field were often unwilling to acknowledge that they had done everything they could to stop sight loss - and even more to restore vision that had already been lost. But registration is the passport to many services, for example, the local authority has a statutory obligation to provide an element of care for a person and to carry out a needs assessment, as well as being able to access specialist transport schemes.
The benefits of registration go far wider and, for example, open the door to some of the following:
- Eligibility for free or subsidised local public transport. In London, this takes the form of a Freedom Pass for use on all buses, tubes, trams and trains in the Greater London area
- Eligibility in London and some other local authority areas for the Taxicard scheme, which provides a number of subsidised taxi journeys each month
- Eligibility for a Blue Badge disabled parking permit
- Eligibility for a Disabled Person’s Railcard
- Eligibility for all sorts of discounted admission to cinemas, theatres, sports and concert venues
And there are financial benefits too. Registration as a blind person gives:
- Automatic entitlement to Disability Living Allowance (at lower rate mobility and care components)
- The Blind Person’s Tax Allowance
- Entitlement to working tax credits
- A statutory obligation for the local authority to reclassify your main residence to the next Council Tax band down from what it originally was
As is often the case with conferences and workshops, discussions with other participants and speakers can sometimes be more useful than the formal sessions themselves. It’s also a good means of networking and finding out about other sources of help, information and advice. Some of the workshop leaders were very inspiring in their examples of how they had come to live with their visual disability, and were now leading fulfilled and contented professional lives. I also learnt about “Sight Village”, a three-day event that takes place in Birmingham every July, where all the latest technology and gadgets designed for the visually impaired market are on display, as well as displays by organisations who might be able to provide assistance towards specialist aids.
So, all in all, a really useful weekend for anyone dealing with sight loss; a good way of getting some support at a difficult time; and, a valuable source of information and advice.
Friday, 27 February 2009
I recently visited a different branch of Tesco from the one that I normally shop at - a branch in Regent Street, just a few metres from Piccadilly Circus - presumably therefore, one of their flagship stores. All went well until I tried to pay for my purchases with my debit card and came up against their chip and pin technology. Somebody had thoughtfully secured all the keypads to their metal holders so that they could not be removed, thus making it impossible for me to use, as in order to see the numbers that I am keying in I need to have my face really close to the keypad. In most places, these keypads are on a piece of curly cable so that you can remove them from the holder and use them; however, in this store not only were they secured to the holders, but the holders were incredibly badly positioned so that there were major obstructions in the way: at the checkout, every time I tried to get my head close to the holder and the keypad, I ended up banging myself against the Perspex screen separating customers from the till itself!
The manager had to be called and we traipsed round the store trying to find a chip and pin machine that I could use. Both devices at the customer service desk had been screwed to the counter; the first one was also inaccessible because of an ice cream freezer that had been thoughtfully (!) positioned there. The second was clutter free, but of course had I been a wheelchair user it would have been impossible to use. So the upshot of this is that with the help of the Equalities Commission, I shall be taking action against Tesco under the Disability Discrimination Act. It’s one of those little things that they could so easily fix and just do not think about.
Another instance was on a recent train journey from London Paddington to Weston Super Mare, in order to attend a conference on sight loss - of which more about at a later date. At Paddington, the assisted service for people with disabilities worked really well. After reporting in to the Service Centre at platform 1, I was soon escorted by a friendly and helpful member of staff, put on a buggy, and driven across the station - to the accompaniment of flashing lights and a beeping noise - to the platform from where my train was leaving. Furthermore, I was driven to the correct carriage and escorted to my pre-booked seat. And at the other end of the journey, station staff was there to greet me and help me to a waiting taxi.
The big problem on this journey was the quality of announcements – or lack of them! From London as far as Bristol, there were plenty of them; clear and informative, passengers were left in no doubt as to the stations they were approaching and where to get off. However, after Bristol there was a change of crew, and the announcements seemed to disappear. For several station stops I was left wondering whether it was soon time to get off. It was only by checking the time that I knew roughly when it was time to get off because of the timetable. So again, it was a case of alerting Great Western trains to this problem and making them realise how important those announcements were for customers to know where they were and where to get off!
Simple and small things yes - but easily fixed and major inconveniences when your life is impeded by sight loss!
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Even better news in the BAFTAs, where British films and performers do strongly - especially the much-lauded “Slum Dog Millionaire”, which gained the best film award and hopefully will also do well at the Oscars in Los Angels next week.
For those who have not seen Slum Dog, it’s a must see as it is a truly remarkable piece of cinematography, lovingly shot by British Director, Danny Boyle and using a whole host of British and Indian talent. It has deservedly been doing excellently at the box office. Once again, it shows how relatively low budget British films can be world-beaters and how proud all of us should be at the work of Film Four in making sure that such movies are made and seen on the big screen.
So why is it that I can both praise the film, recommend that friends and acquaintances see it but at the same time remain unsatisfied by it? The answer comes down to the old phrase that: “Radio has the best pictures”. I first came across Slum Dog in its original dramatization for radio as: “Q and A!” - a broadcast a year or so back on Radio 4. Recently, the original dramatization was re-transmitted in the run-up to Slum Dog being released.
The radio adaptation vividly and faithfully transported listeners through the stories evoked by the original book into the sights and sounds of Mumbai and other parts of India, using authentic sounds and actors to bring this exciting story to life. Day by day over a two-week period, I would settle down with the radio for the next, literally, thrilling installment of the story, awaiting eagerly the final dénouement – and listening raptly as the tale reached climax after climax.
And so it was, in my mind’s eye at least, I had a very clear image of how the story would unfold, as well as the look, feel and sound of the characters. And so it seems, like every other screen adaptation of books - either well known of not - even the most skillful director cannot recreate what is in the minds of other readers and listeners! Some are better than others, as I think with pleasure at BBC adaptations of Jane Austen, and cringe at contemporaneous film adaptations! And when it comes to Shakespeare …!