Potential Paralympic star forced to pull out due to cuts in disability support
An up and coming wheelchair basketball player and a university student are among many disabled people whose life chances have been hit reports The Guardian.
ou wouldn’t expect a member of Great Britain’s Paralympic wheelchair basketball team to be living in an old people’s home. But Freya Levy, 20, has had to live in sheltered accommodation for the over-60s since April because it was the only accessible option offered to her by her local council when she became homeless.
Levy, who has been playing wheelchair basketball for four years, has muscular dystrophy. When the tenancy on the privately rented home where she lived with her mother and brother in Rayleigh in Essex wasn’t renewed at the end of last year, the family couldn’t find another property for all of them that had a ramp to the front door or a downstairs bathroom.
To get a roof over their heads the family had to split up. Her mum was in a flat, her brother at their grandma’s. Levy lived at a Premier Inn hotel for two months borrowing money from a friend to pay the hotel bills of at least £40 a night.
In April, Rochford district council accepted that Levy was officially homeless and offered her emergency accommodation, in a building with a broken lift. With nowhere else to go, she moved into the only accessible option the council gave her: a block of flats for older people.
“I’m just desperate for my own little bungalow that’s accessible so I can get on with growing up,” says Levy. “It’s very frustrating to know that if I was able-bodied, I would not at the age of 20 be in sheltered accommodation for the over-60s.”
Not only is it tough to be in this environment where she is often lonely, but it has put paid to her chances of competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympics which start next week. Levy had trials to be part of the GB Paralympic wheechair basketball team, but was forced to pull out because the rules of the sheltered housing scheme require her to sleep there every night. In order to try out for Rio she would have had to stay at the Paralympic training programme in Worcester every other week from spring.
Levy says that she was “gutted” to miss out on taking part in the Paralympics, but the stress of her housing situation would have made it impossible for her to stay motivated enough to compete. “My energy was spent on finding somewhere to sleep that night and then somewhere more permanent.”
When the London 2012 Paralympic Games brought disability into the country’s living rooms, there was an optimism, encouraged by the rhetoric of politicians, that the event would mark a turning point to greater equality for the more than 10 million disabled people in Britain.
But listen to disabled people like Levy and the reality has been damningly different: from continued inaccessible housing and deepening poverty to the dismantling of state support. According to a new survey by the disability charity, Scope, more than three-quarters of disabled people say coverage of the London Paralympics had a positive impact on the public’s attitudes to disability, but access to basic rights is still often out of reach. Britain’s equality watchdog warned just last month that disabled people are being treated like “second-class citizens”. Branding it society’s “badge of shame”, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) pointed to inequalities such as the lack of political representation, the failure to make adjustments to housing, and the deficit in access to anything from transport and sports stadiums to music venues. It also announced a series of inquiries, including one into the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled workers, and another into the impact of social security changes.
This comes at the same time as the UK is being investigated by the United Nations for alleged grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights as a result of government welfare reforms – notably the first country in the world to be under such.
As Britain celebrated its Paralympians four years ago, disabled citizens were about to face unprecedented cuts to vital benefits and social care. Policies such as the bedroom tax and the abolition of disability living allowance (DLA) have helped drive disabled people to food banks, and into debt and homelessness. At the same time, punitive work measures have been brought in, including a 580% increase in benefit sanctions against sick and disabled claimants between March 2013 and March 2014, and the acceleration of the highly controversial work capability assessment (WCA), sparking ongoing investigations into deaths and suicides of disabled people who had recently been found fit to work.
“I suffered a breakdown about a week afterwards,” says Handel Thomas who applied for the sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance last June. Thomas, 35, had been forced to leave his job as a charity support worker in Swansea during the spring due to worsening depression. “Too many sick days,” he says. On the day of his WCA, he told the nurse conducting the test that he was considering suicide. Regardless of this, he was awarded zero points and declared “fit for work”. He appealed but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) upheld the decision. “By this point, I was broke, unwell and quite frankly terrified,” he says. “I’d worked all my life but I felt like I was being accused of being a liar or a skiver.”
Jo Cole, in Stockton-On-Tees, says: “You are simply not allowed to be chronically sick or disabled any more. She adds: “I’m one of many who has had their life dismantled.” A brain tumour left Cole, 60, partially deaf in 2013 and chronic osteoarthritis means she regularly trips and falls (she’s broken her arm and four toes since becoming disabled). For more than a decade she has used part of her disability living allowance to lease a car under the Motability scheme, which, in her words, has stopped her being housebound. But after being partly rejected for DLA’s replacement support, personal independence payments (PIP) last month, she was forced to give up her car.
“It broke my heart to hand it back,” she says. Without her car, Cole, a part-time manager for a charity, would have no way to get to work, the hospital, or help her ill daughter. Motability agreed to give Cole a one-off charitable payment of £2,000 but, in order to buy another car, her husband has “maxed out” his credit card and the family now has to find £300 a month to pay off the new car: money they would normally save to pay heating bills during the winter to stop Cole getting seriously ill from the cold.
“Since the PIP notice, I’ve not had a night’s sleep and am exhausted and racked with pain,” Cole says. “I think stress is reacting with [my medication] causing my hair to fall out again.”
Since PIP was introduced in April 2013, up to 500 disabled people each week have had to hand back their Motability vehicles, many of which would have been specially adapted to meet their specific needs.
The campaign group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC)is launching a series of austerity protests in a week of action to time with the Rio Paralympics. It says that over the past few years, the series of cuts to disability benefits and support have turned back the clock on disabled people’s rights by decades. “These are attacks in every area of our lives,” says Ellen Clifford, from DPACs national steering group. “Support to eat, drink and use the toilet is being taken away.”
Even something as fundamental as a wheelchair is not always available to disabled people now. When 20-year-old Alice Dunn became suddenly unable to walk last summer, she went to her GP for a referral to wheelchair services. But Dunn, a student from Manchester who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – an inherited condition that weakens connective tissue – was told she would have to wait seven months for an appointment. “It was so long, I would have had to drop out of university while waiting,” she says.
Without any help from the NHS, Dunn bought a £200 wheelchair online. Because it was cheap and ill-fitting, after trying to propel herself, she dislocated her elbow and has been left with permanent damage. To buy a suitable wheelchair, Dunn had to borrow £2,500 from her family. Paying them back got even harder, she says, when she was rejected for PIP this year.
Whether it is cuts to housing, benefits, or transport, the deficit in support for disabled people is in the context of existing, widespread poverty. Almost half of people in poverty in the UK are either disabled themselves or in a household with a disabled person, according to the latest research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute. Since the 2012 Paralympics, a further 300,000 disabled people are living in poverty.
A DWP spokeswoman says: “We’re committed to creating a Britain that works for everyone and our welfare reforms are helping more people find and stay in work. As well as offering the targeted support disabled people need to live independent lives, we are spending nearly £50bn a year to support people with disabilities or health conditions.”
The DWP adds that sanctions are now dropping and each month on average more than 99% of ESA claimants were not sanctioned in the past year after March 2014.
Back in Essex, a spokesman for Rochford council says: “Due to a shortage of suitable housing within our district, particularly for residents with disabilities, finding accommodation poses a challenge. In some cases it may involve short-term placing them in sheltered accommodation as this may be the only accessible housing on offer. We will seek to find alternative accommodation when a more suitable placement becomes available.”
Levy says she is now relying on help from the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK to find a way out. Its 2015 report, Breaking Point, found that 70% of councils who responded to its Freedom Of Information requests did not have a single accessible wheelchair house available, leaving people trapped in unsuitable housing. The charity is currently working on five cases for people in equally troubling situations as Levy.
“This is a very damaging housing crisis that requires immediate focus from the government and councils to ensure more accessible housing is urgently made available,” says a Muscular Dystrophy spokeswoman.
As for Levy’s Paralympic dream, she says: “Now I’m looking ahead to 2020, 2024, 2028 …”