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A disabled student has been left “isolated” and “segregated” by her university’s failure to make her lectures accessible to her.
Sarah-Marie Da Silva, a first-year zoology student and a wheelchair-user, has been trying since her first day on the course to persuade the University of Hull to make changes that would allow her to attend lectures alongside fellow students.
She said the university’s failure to act on her access concerns persuaded her to publish a photograph taken by one of her lecturers last Friday, which showed her being forced to sit alone at the back of a lecture theatre – segregated from fellow students – without a desk to take notes on.
The university later admitted the situation was “not acceptable”.
Now she has warned she will consider legal action against the university for breaching the Equality Act if it fails to take action.
Hull is just the latest university to face complaints from disabled students and staff over the last 18 months.
Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how disabled students had accused University College London of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.
Last summer, disabled students at London South Bank University said they were taking legal action over claims of disability discrimination.
And in August 2018, DNS reported how the University of Liverpool was facing claims that it forced a disabled member of staff to scour the campus for accessible rooms in which she could deliver her lectures, and even told her that it might be considered “reasonable” for her to go down stairs on her bottom in some circumstances rather than be timetabled into ground floor or fully accessible rooms.
In some lectures, Da Silva has been forced to sit at the back in isolation because of a flight of steps, while in others she has had to sit at the front near the lecturer, separated again from her fellow students.
Sometimes, after arriving to see a set of stairs that prevent her from joining other students, she has left before the lecture begins after finding the access barriers she was facing too distressing.
On other occasions, she has been able to access the front of the lecture theatre, where there has been a moveable desk.
But these desks have a brake on their wheels that she cannot reach because of her impairment, so she can only use the desk if she arrives early enough and the lecturer is able to help her adjust it.
Even if there is a desk and she can use it, she is still left isolated from her fellow students at the front of the class.
She told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “I have experienced access issues in pretty much every building I’ve been in and some of the buildings are like three years old – I’ve been told this by several staff members.
“I feel segregated from everyone, I’m isolated and I feel abandoned by the university.
“It has severely impacted my mental health. It is degrading and inhumane.”
She has had support since September from lecturers, her tutor, the student union and the university’s disability team, as well as her boyfriend and her university wheelchair basketball team.
But she said the university had “done nothing except move to slightly more accessible lecture theatres and then ignore us”.
She added: “I’ve gone through many departments, lecturers, my tutor and tried to suggest temporary and long-term solutions and nothing has been done.
“I don’t blame my lecturers or the disability team because they’ve been trying their best, but it’s the people higher up who are refusing to do anything, other than move me about.
“I won’t consider legal action until Hull university comes forward with a solution.
“If it’s not good enough then I will consider legal action.”
The university has only commented on the access failure shown in the photograph, and it has refused to comment on the other concerns Da Silva has raised throughout her course.
A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry that this has happened, clearly it is not acceptable.
“We take these matters very seriously and a colleague from our student services team is looking into what has happened now.
“We are committed to working with our students to put in place any additional support or adjustments where needed. Unfortunately, it is clear this hasn’t happened in this case.
“We carry out independent accessibility surveys and audits across our estate and make every effort to ensure the campus is accessible for all.
“As a university we are continuing to invest in and develop our campus and ensuring our buildings are accessible forms a large part of this.
“This particular building is listed and as a result we are unable to make structural alterations to this room.
“A rigorous process is undertaken to ensure rooms allocated for teaching sessions take into account students’ additional requirements but unfortunately it is clear a mistake has happened on this occasion.
“We will immediately look into what happened and ensure that we take necessary steps to make sure this does not happen again.”
But when asked to comment on the other concerns raised by Da Silva, a spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with Sarah-Marie to offer the support that she needs.
“It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further on individual cases.”
13 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com
Campaigners will tomorrow (Friday) take part in a vigil in Nottingham to highlight how the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) led to a disabled man starving to death after his out-of-work benefits were withdrawn.
Disabled activists and allies will join the vigil and protest in Nottingham city centre* – organised by Nottingham People’s Assembly Against Austerity – to remember Errol Graham and try to ensure that his death leads to change, an independent inquiry, and justice.
The event will include a minute’s silence in memory of Graham and other victims of austerity, and speeches by local councillors and Disabled People Against Cuts.
It came as Graham’s MP, Labour’s Lilian Greenwood, confronted Boris Johnson about the case at yesterday’s prime minister’s questions, asking how many more disabled benefits claimants would have to die “before this government start to value their lives”.
In his reply, Johnson said she was right to raise the “tragic case” but he claimed the government had set up an “independent serious case panel” to look at such deaths, even though DWP previously admitted that the panel’s members would all be DWP civil servants so it would not be independent at all.
A DWP spokesperson said today (Thursday) that the panel would now include “members who are independent of the department”, although he declined to provide any further information.
Alison Turner, the partner of Errol Graham’s son, who has led the fight to secure justice and has called for a criminal investigation into the former DWP ministers and senior civil servants she believes are responsible for this and other deaths, plans to attend tomorrow’s vigil in Nottingham if her health allows her to.
She said the support the family had received from across the country and in Nottingham since DNS first reported on his death last month had been “absolutely outstanding”.
She said the vigil would highlight how supportive local people have been and how angry they were that Errol Graham was abandoned without any money by DWP.
She added: “I am ever so grateful [to the vigil’s organisers]. It does mean a lot. It says to me that we are not going to tolerate this happening to people living locally.
“People are saying it is not acceptable and that they are willing to fight for that.”
She added: “It has helped me in a huge way to see the level of support that he has had in his own city.
“I can’t bring Errol back, but what I can do is see that no other family suffers in the way that we did.
“I would never want to see somebody going through what we have gone through. It’s torturous.
“You sit there and question yourself: ‘What else could I have done?’ The reality was there was nothing we could have done.”
She said she hoped the vigil would show DWP “how many people will take time out of their own life to support the change that needs to happen”.
And she said that the ministers and civil servants at DWP who were responsible for his death “have got to take some responsibility” and understand the damage and the “ripple effect” a death like that causes to the family and friends of the person who has died.
A spokesperson for Nottingham People’s Assembly Against Austerity said: “Errol’s family are calling for justice.
“They want the DWP to be held to account for his death, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
“Errol’s death should shock Britain into awareness of the damage that austerity is doing. Errol was one of us, a citizen of our city.
“If we don’t mark his passing, there will be more Errol Grahams, and austerity will become a permanent feature of British life.”
Last month, Disability News Service revealed how Errol Graham starved to death two years ago after DWP removed his employment and support allowance, leaving him without any income.
A civil servant told an inquest into his death last summer that DWP staff followed departmental guidance and had acted “appropriately” by leaving him with no income.
They had stopped his benefits when they were unable to contact him to discuss why he had not turned up to a work capability assessment.
Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.
*The vigil will be held between 5.30pm and 6.30pm tomorrow (Friday) near the Brian Clough statue in King Street, Nottingham NG1 2DT
6 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com
Many local authorities are unlawfully restricting disabled people’s ability to choose to live independently in their own homes, and are forcing them instead towards residential care, research by a disabled campaigner suggests.
Fleur Perry spent more than six months seeking and analysing information about the independent living policies of more than 230 councils across England, Scotland and Wales, using the Freedom of Information Act.
She wanted to discover their policies on providing choice to disabled people in need of social care.
In those responses, most of the local authorities failed to provide a clear picture of their approach to independent living, and whether their policies risked forcing people into residential care against their will.
But of the 36 councils in Britain that did provide enough evidence, Perry concluded that there were concerns about the approach taken by 22 of them, while the other 14 appeared to respect service-users’ human rights, for example by actively promoting independent living and choice “over and above legal requirements”.
She also found that with every one of the 18 local authorities in England where there were concerns about their independent living policies, each one of them had much higher rates of people living in residential or nursing accommodation than the national average.
One of the responses that concerned Perry came from Bedford council.
The council had told Perry that the maximum weekly amount it would spend on a care package “will be no more than the net weekly cost to Bedford Borough Council of a care home placement that could be commissioned to meet the individual’s assessed eligible needs”.
Jenny Morris, a member of the Independent Living Strategy Group – Perry is also a member – who helped write the Labour government’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People white paper, welcomed the new research.
She said the group’s understanding was that policies like Bedford’s breach government guidance on the Care Act because “local councils should not set arbitrary upper limits on how much they will pay to meet a person’s eligible assessed needs”.
Morris welcomed Perry’s research, and said: “It is very worrying that we are seeing more and more examples of the yawning gap between what the Care Act intends to happen and what disabled people are actually experiencing.
“Article 19 of the UN Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] – which our government has ratified – states that disabled people should have the right ‘to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement’.
“If the policy of councils such as Bedford is not halted we will soon be back to the days when to be disabled meant to be hidden away in an institution.”
A Bedford council spokesperson said: “The Bedford Borough Council Fair Care Policy is used as a trigger for discussion and there is not a limit or a cap.
“We will assist people in choosing the support they want to meet their needs and not push disabled people towards residential care and away from independent living.”
Perry’s research was published this week in the online disability lifestyle magazine Disability Horizons, which is run by disabled people.
She decided to carry out the research after she was asked by Disability News Service (DNS) last March to comment on concerns that disabled people would be forced into residential homes against their will by Conservative-run Barnet council’s new cost-cutting adult social care policy.
Perry had already raised concerns about similar policies in NHS clinical commissioning groups in 2017.
In response to the Barnet concerns, she submitted freedom of information requests to every local authority that funds social care across England, Scotland and Wales.
It took her more than six months to submit the requests, chase up those local authorities that failed to respond, and collate and analyse the results.
Perry said: “Residential accommodation by default is a threat to the independent living movement and to disabled people’s choice and control over their own lives.”
Among the concerns she uncovered were councils putting pressure on disabled people set to be discharged from hospital; councils that would only offer enough funding to pay for one option of where they would live; and councils that failed to make it clear that they recognised the rights of their service-users.
And she said that legislation and guidance failed to protect people’s right to live independently.
She said: “Though ‘genuine choice’ is emphasised as a key principle, restrictions that seem to completely remove or limit choice without justification are not difficult to find.
“Changes must be made to ensure that people can meaningfully make choices about their own lives without undue pressure or restriction.”
In a report based on her research, she calls for the government to introduce a legal right to independent living, and an Independent Living Act, and for policy-makers to engage with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations “to make change happen”.
30 January 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com