Has Access to Work become a bureaucratic monster?

I’ve been picking up lots of chatter recently about Access to Work. Lots of petty new rules suddenly turning up out of nowhere on what communication support can or can’t be booked using Access to Work. Limping Chicken picked up on the trend last year and a recent email from a friend suggests things are getting worse still. This prompts me to tell a story about a little local difficulty I had with Access to Work a few months back. It’s a long story, so get yourself comfortable…

To get the pleasantries out the way, as a policy, Access to Work is great. Can’t live or rather work without it. It provides me with communication support that enables me to attend meetings, speak on the phone and basically do my job. Without that support, I would be severely limited in what work I could do.

So how I do square this with the fact that the people who administer Access to Work are the most petty unhelpful rude obstructive bureaucrats I’ve ever had the displeasure to engage with. The people meant to be helping disabled people into work often seem to be working purposely to make it harder to get the support they need.

My little run in with Access to Work started last summer when I had to renew my claim. The renewals are never enjoyable. They invariably ask lots of random questions like how many meetings I expect to have in the next three years. I don’t even know yet how many meetings I’m going to have next week but anyhow…

This renewal seemed worse than usual. It started off with officials ignoring my renewal claim for 2 months and only getting their act together once my manager started chasing them to find out what was going on. This was all getting me quite nervous since my existing package of support was now due to expire soon.

Things didn’t get better. To cut a long story short, the agreement had to be sent back three times because of errors and rubbish maths. If that was the end of it, then I would not be writing this blog. I suppose that being able to do multiplication on a calculator or know the difference between a sign language interpreter and a speech to text reporter are not totally essential skills for anyone working on Access to Work. But, the worse was still to come.

For reasons unknown, Access to Work apparently required me to split out my renewal into day to day support and one-off support. The one-off support is for funding support that I need to attend party conferences each year which, as a parliamentary officer, is fairly essential for my job. I had naively assumed that the person looking after my claim could deal with both or would at least make it clear how this would be handled. Nope.

When it became clear that the official didn’t seem to be doing anything about the one-off support, I flagged it up. I was told that I needed to talk to the person looking after my claim. Which was puzzling because I thought that’s what she was there to do. I asked if she could let me have the contact details or, better still, forward my email the relevant person.

No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply again. Another email. No reply. After the 4th time trying, I got a rather curt email that finally gave me another email address to try.

I emailed the other person. No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply. You may be able to detect a trend.

By the time I had finally got someone to look at this, the party conferences had been and gone. I had been forced into a position of deciding whether to go to conference and try and get by without communication support or telling my boss I couldn’t do my job or booking the communication support. As Access to Work had funded this kind of support before without question, I went ahead and booked it. I thought I’d be OK. There’s no way Access to Work could reasonably refuse this support, surely?

The claim was turned down. Why? Because I was making a retrospective claim. The fact that they might have had something to do with it being a retrospective claim was not really considered to be a mitigating factor.

Thus began a long complaints process and a million more emails. I tried reasoning with them. No luck. I made a formal complaint. It was not upheld and the reason given, adding insult to injury, was that, as a long-standing user of Access to Work, I should apparently have been aware from the outset that separate renewal claims were needed. Basically it was entirely my own fault.

It was incredibly frustrating. I was having to spend hours working to recover costs that I had reasonably expected would be reimbursed by Access to Work. What made it worse for me was the knowledge that, as I work for a charity, I was using up charitable funds.

I was forced to exhaust the complaints process to the long and bitter end. And only then did I finally get someone to admit that actually Access to Work may have been at fault. And that it wasn’t unreasonable of me to expect that my renewal for one-off support should have been dealt with at the very start. My request for a retrospective claim was finally agreed.

So this story kind of has a happy ending. But I had to fight to get it. I had to deal with curt and obstructive officials. Several times, I pointedly drew attention to the Access to Work customer charter which states that I can expect Access to Work to:

• Have an adviser contact you within 24 hours of getting an application form
• Keep you informed through the process
• Be flexible and responsive
• Be helpful, courteous and professional

I work in campaigns so I know how to write stroppy emails and to navigate a complaints system. Other deaf people, especially young deaf people new to the system, might not be able to or feel confident doing so.

And things now seem to be getting worse with the current trend to new petty and stupid rules coming out of the Department for Work and Pensions on Access to Work, all making it harder for deaf and disabled people to get the support they need.

It’s taken me a few months to write this blog. Partly that’s out of exasperation and frustration that these people actually think it’s acceptable to behave like this with disabled people. I just want to do my job. I am tired of having to fight endless battles with faceless bureaucrats. Even now, after my renewals have been sorted, I still get curt and unhelpful letter from Access to Work querying some issue or another with my claim.

The police were once described as being ‘institutionally racist’. Right now, I feel like Access to Work has turned into a petty bureaucratic monster that’s institutionally hostile to disabled people.

PS If you’re experiencing problems with Access to Work, check out the Deaf AtW website which has lots of helpful information and advice.


Battle lost on welfare cuts for deaf people

The Department for Work and Pensions’ have succeeded in their plans to replace Disability Living Allowance with a new benefit called Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for disabled people over 16. The regulations were debated and voted through by Parliament around a month ago. And now many deaf people will lose out.

A response from the National Deaf Children’s Society is online and sets out their anger and disappointment.

I think what makes me most angry is the way the Government have gone about making this cut without being open about the consequences. Lots of members of the public and a few MPs and peers have raised concerns about the impact of these changes on deaf people. They have all been largely fobbed by the Department for Work and Pensions in several different insidious ways.

For example, the Department have been prone to engage in rhetoric about supporting those “most in need” when asked how deaf people will be affected.

Note the implication that that deafness isn’t that big a deal. If the Department think this, they should come out and say so. They’ve had ample opportunity.

And since when did it become OK for the Department for Work and Pensions to turn disability into some kind of big competition, pitting different groups of disabled people against each other to see who is ‘most’ disabled? I thought the just thing to do was to support everyone who needs help. It’s brazen and shameless divide and rule.

Another example of how the Department have batted away concerns is through refusing to identify how many deaf people will lose out. They say the Department can’t monitor the impact on deaf people. Everyone’s needs need to be looked at individually, they say. I find this curious because the Department can come up with a very specific figure of 608,000 people who will be affected by these changes. That’s 608,000 individuals who have already been judged to not be disabled enough. They can also breakdown figures in terms of who is on different rates of DLA. I rather suspect the Department can work out the differential impact but have made a conscious decision not to do so.

And finally, and probably what annoys me most, is some rather disingenuous use of definitions. For example, the dividing line between those deaf people who will and won’t get PIP is whether they have difficulties understanding basic or complex verbal information without communication support. So if you can’t understand basic information, you qualify. If you can understand basic but not complex you won’t.

When someone says ‘complex’ information, I assume they’re talking about the philosophy of Nietzsche or the budget for the European Commission. In fact, ‘complex’ anything that takes more than a sentence. This isn’t complex information at all – it’s everyday communication. And now deaf people who can understand yes or no but who struggle with everyday communication will lose out. So much for promoting personal independence.

The changes come into force from April. Reassessments for anyone who is currently claiming DLA will start from October – including deaf children who have just turned 16. You can expect a letter in the post. If you currently have a lifetime award, this isn’t going to make a difference, you will still undergo reassessment. In most cases, you will probably be called to a face to face assessment.

It now seems likely that the Department for Work and Pensions will turn their attention to DLA for children. Will the Department attempt to cut support to those children it deems to not disabled enough? If so, they’re going to have a hell of a fight on their hands.

Welfare cuts targeting deaf people?

Well, it’s official. The Government thinks that deafness is just a ‘minor’ disability. A piffling little thing of no consequence or cost.

Last week, the Government confirmed the arrangements for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit which is replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for disabled people over 16 (DLA is safe for children – for now). In doing so, they confirmed that deaf people will be among those hardest hit. Here’s a National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) story on it.

The older lower rate for DLA is out which will hit a lot of deaf people.

And the criteria has been worded in such a word that basically you have to be a sign language user reliant on interpreters all the time to get even basic standard rate of PIP. Some estimates suggest around 90% of deaf people don’t use sign language as their main form of communication in the home.

To add insult to injury, the entire claim process is predicated on the basis that all disabled people can use the phone to request a form. Forget about such quaint things like webforms or email.

From next April over 600,000 disabled people will start to see their DLA cut or removed. That’s over half a million. And yet the announcements got hardly any coverage.

MPs and Lords will have to approve the changes at some point early in the new year. If you’re angry about the fact the Government doesn’t seem to understand deafness or think that it carries any significant extra costs, then get in touch with your MP and ask him or her to oppose the changes. If you get DLA now, explain to your MP what you use it for and what life would be like if you didn’t get it.

And don’t forget, if the Government thinks they can get away with this, deaf children and their families will be next.

Deaf access fail at the Department for Work and Pensions

Imagine someone telling a wheelchair user that the disabled toilets are just up the stairs. You’d think it bonkers. Well, the Department with overall responsibility on disability policy seem to be on well on their way to pulling a similar trick with deaf people.

There’s been lots of discussions about how the process for claiming the new Personal Independence Payments benefit will work in practice. In a nutshell, you have to make a pre-claim before you’re given a personalised form for your proper claim.

And how do you get a pre-claim form? Easy, you give the benefits team a call and they will do a short interview over the phone. And if you have problems using the phone? No worries, you’ll get a paper form to complete. And how do you get a paper form? You give the benefits team a call.

Frankly, it’s more than just a little disconcerting that the people looking after benefits for disabled people haven’t quite twigged that not every disabled person can use a telephone or have a textphone. So much for the new digital age and for the Government leading by example when it comes to access for disabled people… Am told that Department officials are working on trying to get an online form set up for the new PIP benefit… but it may not be ready in time when the new benefit launches in April next year.

They’d better get a move on. It’s not only just bonkers and ludicrous, but discriminatory.

Rubbish subtitles: an update

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself unexpectedly in the Daily Mail, the Metro, Digital Spy and the Sun. Sadly, it wasn’t due to scandal or celebrity mayhem. Instead, with my NDCS hat on, I had put my name to a quote lambasting ITV for their rubbish live subtitles for Dancing on Ice. Some of the worse examples included Philip Schofield suggesting the contestants would be “toasted to their limits.” Live subtitles are never perfect. These subtitles were appalling though and suggested a real lack of thought and prep by the production team. If live subtitles of reasonable quality can be done on the X Factor, it can be done on Dancing on Ice.

The only thing worse that rubbish live subtitles on live programmes are rubbish live subtitles on pre-recorded programmes. Which brings me to the Young Apprentice over on the BBC.

Last November, the BBC found itself on the deaf naughty step by showing the final of the Young Apprentice with live subtitles. Which would have been fine except it wasn’t a live programme, it was evidently filmed several months before. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog set out the case against the BBC.

I made a formal complaint to the BBC. I had a cursory reply back then referring to “technical problems”. I politely replied asking what exactly these technical problems were. Three months later, they finally got round to coming up with another excuse. The gist of their reply:

“The technical problems to which we refer is that many programmes are only completed close to transmission or have to be re-edited just before broadcast for countless possible reasons thus the reality is that sometimes there just isn’t time for our subtitlers to step in between when a programme has been finished or edited and the time of broadcast… We genuinely do our utmost to have full subtitles on absolutely all programmes because we are committed to providing a great service to all audiences and it is as disappointing for us as it is to you when we’re not able to for reasons beyond our direct control.”

On reading this, my face was full of such scorn as to put Margaret’s raised eyebrows and Nick’s pursed lips to shame. I wouldn’t mind a late reply, if it bothered to address my concerns properly.

Namely, how exactly is this outside of their direct control? Who commissions these programmes and sets out expectations for what the end product will look like? The BBC surely don’t accept any old rubbish. So why do they accept programmes that arrive too late for subtitles to be added?

And secondly, how exactly is completing programmes close to transmission and re-editing them at last minute a “technical problem.” It isn’t a technical problem. It’s poor planning. It’s some guy in the production team deciding not to leave enough time in the schedule to allow subtitles be ready in time. It’s some guy deciding that access for deaf people is a lesser priority.

I’ve sent my complaint straight back to the BBC and asked them to look again. With a new series of the Apprentice starting soon, I’m determined to toast the BBC complaints team to their limits until they deal with this properly.

Celebrity DJ calls subtitled films at cinema “daft”

Today gave me a whopping reminder of the power of Twitter in campaigns when “celebrity” DJ, Sara Cox managed to unite the deaf community in anger at some fairly idiotic tweets last night.

It’s a hard life being Sara. She’s goes to the cinema on a date and then, shock horror of horrors, finds the film is showing with SUBTITLES! Frankly, I would tweeted in amazement that she managed to chance upon a film that was accessible to deaf people. Instead, she describes this on Twitter as “daft”. A few people point out that actually the subtitles are there to help deaf people access films. She dismisses them with what I can only describe as a naughty Northern swear word. A huge outcry later, still going the last time I looked on Twitter, said offensive tweets were deleted and an apology issued. Apparently, she thought the subtitles were for foreigners. Daft, indeed (here’s a screengrab of her nonsense – courtesy of @Deaf on Twitter) and the story has been picked up in a couple of news outlets including the Telegraph.

Is this enough? She’s said she’s mortified at the offence caused, should we tweeters get some perspective and all move onto something else? Maybe. But I’m still pretty annoyed and disappointed by the whole thing.

Subtitled films are few and far inbetween. Deaf people can’t just turn up to watch a subtitled film. We have to plan our social lives around the few showings around and then sit with our fingers crossed through some rubbish adverts in the hope that the man in the projector box doesn’t screw up the subtitles. Deaf journalist, Charlie Swinbourne, hit the nail on the head in his article for the Guardian a while back. Deaf children and grown ups need more access, not less.

As has been powerfully pointed out by fellow deaf tweeters, thanks to an ill-informed tweet, a celebrity, with lots of followers who seem rather keen and willing to defend her views, has now helped make it legitimate and OK to complain about access for deaf people and made it harder for deaf campaigners to persuade cinema to show more subtitled films. A lot of valuable work, potentially undone. Very frustrating indeed.

I’m sure Sara is genuine in her apology. But the damage has been done and there are no naughty Northern swear words that can take it back.

Stuck in the 80s – deaf access to telecomms

Image courtesy of http://www.geekalerts.com

Imagine that it’s still 1981 and all technological progress has just stopped. So no i-phones – everyone is still walking around with a brick-like phone looking like a muppet. No 3D cinemas. Just 4 channels on the telly. Subtitles only available on Blue Peter and Eastenders. Deaf children still wearing a box around their waist as a hearing aid.

Well, in terms of how deaf people use the phone, you don’t have to imagine, because it really is still 1981.

I can’t hear on the phone so if I want to communicate with the hearing world – *shudder* – I need someone , a 3rd party, to relay or type to me what the hearing person is saying. I need a relay service.

Currently, there’s only one show in town – text relay where I have to type what I want to see and have the 3rd party read it out to the hearing person for me. I hate text relay in its present form. I hate the fact that someone else is speaking for me when I can speak the Queen’s English perfectly well, thank you very much. That the call takes forever. And that I don’t know what the operator is plonked in the middle of my conversation. It feels a bit like getting my Mum to make my phone calls for me. If I were a deaf teenager, I’d be mortified if I had to use this service. In some respects, the dead have an advantage – an ouija board would probably be a more enjoyable and speedy means of conversing with the outside world.

It may have been acceptable in the 80s, but it’s certainly not now. So why are we stuck in the 80s?

I blame the regulators. In a nutshell, the regulatory framework means that only BT is required to offer a text relay service. And BT self-fund it. You don’t have to be a behavioural economist to realise there are no incentives for BT to modernise, improve or market the service. And as for video relay services for sign language users? Forget about it – it’s not mentioned in the regulatory framework.

Does it have to be like this? No. Deaf people in other countries enjoy a much better service. Captioned relay – where the operator uses voice recognition technology to speed up the phone call, where the deaf person can speak for him/herself and read a live transcript on the computer screen – is available in the States. As are video relay services, where an operator transposes text into sign language for deaf people who communicate in BSL. And in the States, they even have a choice of different providers. Competition! How modern!

The good news is that new European legislations mean that the Government and Ofcom, the regulator, are required to make improvements. It’s a shame it took the EU before Ofcom and the Government actually woke up to the current situation but anyhow.

The bad news is that Ofcom and the Government are dragging their heels and not taking it, I think, seriously. There seems to be a bit of ping-pong going on between the two with neither stepping up to the plate. Ofcom seem mired in very narrow perceptions of what the law allows them to do. A review is underway but it’s been going on for so long, I fear it may be another 30 years before it concludes.

Pressure is needed to break the status quo. The UK Council on Deafness is co-ordinating a campaign on this and a range of organisations, including DAART, TAG and VRS Today, are also applying pressure. NDCS has also set up an online campaign action for people to nag their MP about the issue. It’s fair to say that whatever happens in the next few months will determine whether any improvements are ever made to drag deaf access to telecommunications into the 21st century.