When won’t this be news?

Yesterday there was the headline “Fakenham woman chosen as role model for those with disabilities” in my local paper. It details how a young woman with Down’s syndrome has secured employment through a joint scheme involving several agencies. I’ve got a couple of issues with the promotion and reporting of this which I’ll go into below.

Before I do, I want to make it perfectly clear that in no way do I decry the efforts of Brogan Johnston and her family in securing employment and a more rewarding life. It’s not easy and they must be congratulated.

The article called Brogan a role model for disabled people as regards employment before going on to discuss the project that has helped her find meaningful work.

As far as I can tell, Brogan is just like the vast majority of disabled people I know. She wants a job, a life, the same things as everyone else. The real story in the article is Project Search. The Sayce Report summarises Project Search as:

Project Search The Project Search model has been adopted by 14 (mainly public sector) employers across England to offer people with learning disabilities the opportunity to move beyond the mundane work usually assigned to them – clearing tables, moving shopping trolleys – and instead trains them in more complex, but routine, tasks, such as assembling medical equipment. Individuals learn different roles, in rotation. The approach requires the employer to ‘carve’ jobs in new ways so the individual has one essential job, that they learn thoroughly, and offers support to both employee and employer, alongside training. The initiative is still young in the UK and formal evaluation evidence is not yet available, but the four sites that have been running for over one year report that they have successfully supported people into employment and are saving money in recruitment costs. The Employers’ Forum on Disability aims to involve five private sector companies in adopting the approach, so it may be set to grow.

This is a laudable project if it gets disabled people into meaningful long term employment.

I have two main concerns with the reporting and the project.

Firstly, while I see there is a good ‘human interest’ element to Brogan’s story, it perpetuates the myth that disabled people need ‘inspiring’ into work and should follow the example of such ‘role models’. There is also the unspoken flip side that those disabled people not in work are lazy and need to take after these ‘paragons’ when the reality is much more complicated than that. Access to transport, appropriate adjustments and employers that comply with the law are needed for starters.

My second concern is why do large employers need these special projects to employ disabled people? Why aren’t they embracing the qualities that a diverse workforce brings? Time and time again it’s been proven that disabled people in employment take less time off sick and are as productive (in appropriate roles) as non-disabled people.

I’d like to see more mainstreaming of the employment of disabled people and fewer value judgements in reporting these issues but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Finally congratulations to Brogan and I wish her every success in her working life. I look forward to the day when a disabled person having work like this is the norm and not a news story.


Send the Troops In

As you may have noticed, things have got a bit ‘rioty’ in a number of cities over the last week or so. I have been involved in a few conversations on Twitter about it. I’ve avoided talking about the causes and the ‘deeper’ rights and wrongs (damaging other people’s stuff is just wrong) but did get involved in a conversation about getting the army in. After I’d expressed my thoughts, someone asked me if I’d blog about my take on it. I’m only going to look at the legislative and practical issues rather than the political aspects.

As regular readers will know I’ve been involved in the UK Civil Contingencies field since the early 2000s so this element of the response really interested me.

Putting the army on the streets to support the police has two main elements; how they are deployed and what they do once they are out on the streets.

The policies and procedures for using military assets/personnel to aid the police and local authorities are contained in Joint Doctrine Publication 02: The Defence Contribution to Resilience. This covers both Military Aid to the Civil Community (MACC) and Military Aid to the Civil Powers (MACP). Supporting the police is MACP.

Any request for the military to assist the police has to be passed from the Home Office to the MOD and be subject to scrutiny at ministerial level. The Home Office explains the task that they need assistance for and then the MOD will then deploy resources as it deems appropriate.

This process takes time and it can be 36-72 hours from initial request to the first units arriving on scene. This isn’t ideal in a rapidly changing situation. There is also the issue of the availability of appropriate military units with public order training. Following the end of operations Banner (Northern Ireland) and Telic (Iraq), there is far less public order training and fewer units with an appropriate level of currency in this training. Other operational requirements and force reductions also reduce the availability of suitable personnel.

Military personnel and assets remain under the command of their officers and the MOD with all requests at a local level being routed through a liaison officer at either tactical or strategic command (Civil Contingencies Act usage rather than military usage).

As will be obvious, this presents a time delay and less responsiveness and flexibility compared to police assets under direct police command.

Another key restriction in the use of the army is the powers they do or don’t have. JDP 02 states:

Legal powers of Service Personnel conducting Military Aid to the Civil Power in the UK

411.        General Powers. Service personnel are required to act within the rule of law and will normally have no special legal powers beyond those of the ordinary citizen. Hence Service personnel may use reasonable force to prevent crime, including in self-defence. As a last resort such force may include firearms if authorised by the MOD and subject to the relevant Rules of Engagement (JSP 398).

412.        Arrests Although Service personnel should not normally attempt to arrest a civilian, in certain circumstances there may be no other option. Any citizen, including a member of the Armed Forces, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may arrest offenders for a breach of the peace.

However without appropriate control and restraint training there is significant risk to both those making the arrest and the individual being arrested. Any injuries inflicted on the detained person whilst being arrested may constitute assault.

This lack of additional powers over and above the ordinary citizen may remove any advantage of having the Army on the streets as opposed to police officers. There are also issues where, for reasons of security, the testimony of Service personnel may not be able to be used in court. This would have a significant impact on court cases following any disturbance where they were involved in arrests.

In summary, the Army are far less useful that might have been at first thought for the following reasons:

  • They take a significant time to deploy
  • There probably won’t be appropriate units available
  • They only have the same powers as ordinary citizens
  • They may not be able to give evidence afterwards, resorting in failures of prosecutions.

This ignores the social and political impacts that having soldiers policing our streets would have.

What I did in ‘Ghazistan’

Despite what you might have read in the media over the last few days, going to work in an emergency situation like the current famine in the Horn of Africa is more than just a plane ticket and some jabs.
For a number of reasons aid workers and other international staff working in these areas are at risk from all sorts of threats. Unfamiliarity with the culture, geography and ‘tunnel vision’ by focusing on the programme increases the vulnerability. Good agencies have a robust security management process to address this and reduce the likelihood of something occurring to their staff, both local and international. One element in this is training for international staff before they leave their ‘home’ country.
RedRUK is a charity based in the UK that specialises in training for the humanitarian sector. They train on logistics, water & sanitation and security among other things. I did their Personal Safety and Security in Emergencies course a few years ago and found it an eye opener, both in what it taught me but also what it showed me about myself and how I react.
Most of the course is classroom based working on the skills and systems you need to keep yourself and others safe. The last full day is a simulation where you are ‘deployed’ to a fictional country and get to practice some of the skills you have learned and experience some of the things that might occur.
This simulation is made possible by a number of volunteers who act various roles to try and make the experience as realistic yet safe as possible. Since doing the course myself, I’ve volunteered as an actor for 5 of these and always find it so rewarding giving the participants the ‘best’ experience I can. It’s a funny mix of fancy dress, training and improvisation.
Each scenario within the simulation has a loose ‘plot’ and a time scale but as we have to react to the actions of the participants, it gets interesting. Some of the scenarios involve full on ‘ranty’ acting that are great fun (drunk militia men) and others require a more measured approach (Serious formal checkpoint) but it all adds up to a rewarding if tiring day.
My disability means that I may never be able to use my skills in a frontline aid situation but by supporting the education of those who are going to work in dangerous places I feel I’m doing my bit to help the wider world. Also, if I’m honest, it’s great fun too.


There’s an excellent journalist (yes, they do exist) called Katherine Quarmby who has been covering stories of disability hate crime since 2007. She wrote the report Getting Away with Murder about the massive injustices involved in the deaths of several disabled people. Now she has expanded this into a book.

Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People looks at disabled hate crime in depth. As well as the horrific details of the well known crimes, it studies the roots of society’s hatred towards disabled people. From Greek and Roman times, through the Middle Ages, Georgian and Victorian freak shows, pre-war eugenics and the holocaust, disabled people have been seen as less than human. This legacy still informs public attitudes today and the current portrayal of disabled people as expensive scroungers further dehumanises.

While a small minority are responsible for the attacks, there is a significant group of the populace that facilitate their crimes. They are the people who stand by, accept the bullying of disabled people, and tolerate disablist abuse in the media. Disabled people are expected to tolerate abuse that no other minority has to.

We are told not to be so sensitive and how ‘words never hurt anyone’. It the most literal sense, perhaps not but they do contribute to a society where abuse is acceptable.

I can’t recommend the book highly enough. A real eye-opener.

JCP & DWP: Incompetent and unlawful

It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us
I’ve been navigating my way through the mire that is the benefits system on and off all my life. It’s complex, stressful and humiliating. When I lost my leg, they under calculated my benefit and also made me submit payslips to prove I’d paid NI for five years previously to claiming. I had to appeal and six months later, the day before the tribunal, they decided they were in error and complied with the rules and regulations.
After being made redundant last August, I went along to sign on. Being eleven years later than my experience above, I expected the processes to be simpler and more accessible. How naive was I.
One of the effects of my disability is to impair some elements of my hand/eye coordination. The biggest impact this has is when I have to fill in forms. Any form with boxes for comments is almost impossible for me to fill in neatly and I get writer’s cramp really easily.
Never mind, I thought. I’ll just ask for anything I need in an alternative format. A large organisation like Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is bound to have all the documents for the public in all kinds of formats. How wrong I was!
I was told that ‘that’s how the forms are and that’s all you’ll get’. They did mention that there was a team somewhere working on making accessible versions of the forms but didn’t know when they’d be available.
The requirement to make reasonable adjustments to make goods and services accessible came in with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and was enforceable from 1999. This means that the largest government department has had 12 years to get this right and is only just attempting it! The form I have in front of me now is issue number three from July 2005 (according to the text at the bottom). In the three iterations they’ve had, not once have they managed to comply with the law and produce accessible versions.
JCP are very strict when it comes to making you comply with their regulations but a total failure when they are required to comply with the law. If you speak to the local managers, they have no power to get things amended and there are no publicly available contact details for JCP at a corporate level. I’ve had to write to my MP and the DWP ministers to raise this issue. Watch this space.
In further JCP incompetence news, I’ve been sanctioned for not applying for a job I can’t do. The only way I found out about this was when the money didn’t arrive in my account. I phoned up and was told it’d been stopped from 31st May until 25th July. I contacted the local JCP and they had no record on the system of any sanction. On Wednesday I finally got a letter informing me of the sanction, a month after the decision had been made. This letter was only sent out because I made the call. I’ve got an (inaccessible) appeal form and will have to do battle for that. Interestingly I’ve not had a single interview out of all the jobs JCP has recommended I apply for, yet had interviews in 60% of the ones I’ve found for myself.
JCP and DWPs systems are over complex and require duplication of effort and data entry. If the procurement hadn’t been such a shambles, the savings would make most of the current benefit cuts unnecessary.

June 30th, pensions and wider issues

A slightly different post today. The teaching unions and PCS held a strike over pensions and the government’s refusal to recognise the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee relating to pension. Part of the action in Norwich was a rally by the unions, supported by other anti cuts organisations. Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People were invited to address the rally and I offered to do it. Below are the notes I used for the speech. I wanted to keep it concise so what’s below is pretty much what I said.

  • These attacks on pensions are part of a continuing trend of ‘divide and rule’ by those in power.
  • This Coalition Government is creating a ‘perfect storm’ for vulnerable people and low paid workers.
  • Disabled people face a triple whammy
  1. cuts and rationing of national benefits – DLA (to be cut by 25%), closure of ILF, access to work fund
  2. massive cuts in local authority services that we depend on for our independence
  3. privatisation of the NHS which will result in a US style 2 tier system of healthcare with disabled people losing out
  • The Local Authority cuts will also fall disproportionately on lower paid workers, the majority of whom are women.
  • The pressure on local authorities is getting to attempt cuts that are unlawful, as happened in Birmingham.
  • They are attacking hard won rights and trying to turn the clock back
  • In the midst of this, taxpayers’ money – our money – has been used by RBS to pay bonuses.
  • The Coalition Government are making the public sector and those who rely on its services pay for a crisis that is not of our making
  • They must not be allowed to get away with this
  • Our rights have been won by disabled people campaigning, taking collective action, struggling often in the teeth of opposition from politicians, policy makers, professionals and charities
  • We have got to where we are today with the help of allies – like those here today – that recognise disability as a struggle for equality and human rights
  • In Norfolk, disabled people are proud to be campaigning with our allies against the cuts
  • We commissioned research by an economist at the University of East Anglia (UEA).  He found that the poorest half of disabled people in Norfolk, around 100,000 people and their families, will see their living standards decline by a third over the next four years
  • The cuts are both disproportionate and discriminatory against us
  • The nurses passed a vote of no confidence in Andrew Lansley
  • At the Hardest Hit March, disabled people passed a vote of no confidence in Maria Miller
  • In this tradition of democracy, I now want to put a vote of no confidence in the Coalition Government – they need to know the strength of feeling out here – all those in favour raise your hands, voices
  • They say “We are all in it together” but it has become clear that some are “in it” more than others.
  • Disabled people, unpaid carers, low paid workers, are all bearing far more than their fair share.
  • This is just the beginning – we must not rest until the cuts are reversed

This was to show how public services that people rely on, both for employment and to be able to live as part of society, are being attacked from all sides. I was glad to have had the opportunity to speak and give a new audience an insight to ‘our’ point of view.


Supporting Disabled People – Some Thoughts

This post is in related to a conversation I had on Twitter on Friday. I hope it explains things much better than I could have done in 140 characters and people find it of interest.

I saw a re-tweet about someone raising funds for Leonard Cheshire. While I applaud their efforts as doing something as tough as a triathlon is great, I had some concerns about who they were raising the money for.

Within the disability community, Leonard Cheshire is widely disliked for a number of reasons. The key one is their treatment of one of their residents, Doug Paulley. He challenged management about the way their policies were affecting residents in the home he was in. The management then proceeded to victimise him. An inquiry found that he had been subject to “institutional abuse” by senior managers. The story and related issues are covered by the paper Disability Now here and here.

I passed on the first of those links to the person who re-tweeted the fundraising tweet and the originator. I wasn’t trying to sabotage their significant efforts, just wanted to make them aware of the issues. After a brief conversation I was asked “how can WE be of help?” By ‘we’ I assume the twitterer was referring to non-disabled people. Below is how I think people can help.

Disability organisations are split into two types; ones for disabled people and ones of disabled people. Organisations for disabled people are usually larger, often national charities where disabled people have very little say in how they are run. They will have very few (if any) disabled trustees or senior managers and tend to be very paternalistic in their view point. Organisations of disabled people have disabled people at the core, driving decision making. They are often more locally based and smaller but are championing the needs and desires of disabled people directly. They promote inclusion and participation. The organisation I’m a trustee for only has disabled trustees and its member organisations all have to be controlled by disabled people too.

If non-disabled people want to support disabled people and increase their empowerment and inclusion, supporting organisations of disabled people rather than those for disabled people will be the most effective. If you’re asked to fund-raise for something disability related, ask the organisation what part disabled people play in steering it. If they can’t/won’t answer or say that they ‘consult’ rather than fully involve disabled people, then I’d suggest looking for a different charity to support.

This isn’t just an attack on Leonard Cheshire; other organisations are as bad, just not as high profile. I asked ASBAH (the Association for Spina Bifida (SB) and Hydrocephalus (H)) why only 7 out of their 20 trustees were disabled people. Six weeks later, I’m still waiting for a reply. Partly this will be due to ASBAH’s history. It was set up in 1966 to help the families of children with SB/H. It was mostly focused in that area as the life expectancy of someone with SB was quite low. Improvements in treatment and diagnosis since then have drastically increased life expectancy. As a result, there are more adults with SB than there were in 1966 and ASBAH needs to change its focus to reflect this emergent community.

Disabled people want inclusion and some control over their lives. Paternalistic approaches from charities, whilst genuine and well meaning, do little to further this. Supporting disabled people’s organisations is the most effective way to support genuine change.