Mind the gap
by Claudia Wood
In the run up to the Paralympic Games, there has been much commentary on whether public perceptions of disability would change. Some have suggested the high public profile and celebration of achievement would shake the growing and media-fed idea that disabled people are a drain on state resources and in some way undeserving of financial support.
Others are more cautious, suggesting the way in which the Paralympics is being treated – as a triumph over adversity rather than a celebration of sporting excellence, will do little to change people’s views of disabled people as vulnerable victims.
I’m probably somewhere in the middle - welcoming anything that shines a light on and raises awareness of a proportion of our population which is too often hidden from public life, but sceptical that the celebrations of a small group of athletes in a Paralympic bubble will radically change the treatment of millions of disabled people up and down the country facing prejudice and bigotry associated with the public paranoia of benefits fraud and scroungers.
But leaving these more lofty debates to one side, the Paralympics for me raises a more humdrum issue: transport. It has been a big part of the wider Olympics debate this summer – whether the London transport system would stand up to the added pressure of millions of visitors travelling across to Stratford every day. And even the greatest naysayers of the state of London’s preparations before the Games have had to admit that overall, we’ve done pretty well. Everything worked as it was supposed to, gridlock was minimised and there were no embarrassing stories of hundreds of Americans having to walk up the track in the dark when a tube broke down. Phew.
But when it comes to disabled Olympics and Paralympics visitors, it’s an entirely different story of course. The tube is only wheelchair accessible at a handful of stations (which means wheelchair users can get off at the Olympic Park, but might not be able to get on from their point of origin or need to take a circuitous route to get there), and getting on to the tubes still requires asking staff to place a ramp and hold up the train.
Buses, on the other hand, only take two wheelchairs at a time, and will often refuse a wheelchair user if the bus is too busy/has a pram on already. During peak periods (like during the Olympics) it can be nigh on impossible for people with mobility needs to get on to busy buses and tubes, and queues for the wider ticket barriers and lifts in accessible stations (including Stratford, blessed with dozens of steps up to the Olympic park) can be interminable.
Fortunately, the Paralympian teams have dedicated transport to get them around, otherwise stories of wheelchair basketball teams stranded at the bottom of a set of stairs somewhere in West London might well prove an embarrassment for the celebrations. But disabled visitors are less well equipped – many having resorting to taxis in the face hours of complex routes and having to pre-book assistance at every interchange, only to be thwarted by an ill-thought out kerb or broken down lift.
And this isn’t simply an inconvenience. It’s also horrendously expensive. Disability Living Allowance was designed to contribute towards the costs of living with a disability, exactly because the poor state of public transport necessitated the use of taxis. Specialist diets, clothing, equipment and other materials don’t come cheap either and DLA is a lifeline for people saddled with these costs simply to remain independent or manage their condition.
And yet, the government is replacing DLA with the Personal Independence Payment, designed to reduce spending on this benefit by 20 per cent with a more stringent test focusing on the ‘functional impact’ of a person’s disability. Successive drafts of the test have been pulled apart by a variety of disability organisations for its inappropriately narrow focus on physical limitations and medical-style testing, and it remains in development.
To me, this is a classic example of the government creating a demand side solution to a supply side problem. In a parallel to a housing benefit cap (when the real solution to reduce these benefit costs is to build more houses) the government has decided to reduce DLA costs by ensuring fewer people are eligible for it. Surely a more sustainable solution to lowering DLA spending would be to tackle the drivers of disability related costs? And perhaps the easiest one to tackle is transport. If more public transport were accessible, fewer people would need to resort to taxis.
This, in theory, could reduce the amount people need in DLA – it is a benefit, after all, designed in part to compensate disabled people for the inadequacies of our inaccessible workplaces, shops and transport. An upfront investment in transport would reap years of reduced living costs for disabled people – not to mention the promotion of their inclusion in community and economic life.
But this is a ‘spend to save’ option, and a more tempting ‘cut to save’ option is clearly on offer, in the form of PIP. The result? The costs of living with a disability will remain far too high, and disabled people will have fewer resources to meet them.