The independence of disabled people is being compromised by excessive safety concerns

A blind woman is refused access to a disco on the grounds that her white stick would be a fire hazard. A deaf women is refused entry to a dentistry course because she would be unable to hear if a patient screamed out in pain. Residents of a nursing home are refused napkins on the grounds that they could choke on them. A householder is refused permission for a grab rail for her steep front steps in case she fell while using it.

These are among dozens of cases being collected by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), which believes that a ''risk averse culture'' in Britain is severely curtailing the rights of disabled people to work, travel, socialise and ultimately lead independent lives. It believes that there must be a "grown-up" debate on how much risk is actually acceptable to adults.

The DRC's claims are supported by Sheelagh Richards, chief executive of the College of Occupational Therapists, who believes that some employers and local authorities have "lost the plot" when it comes to managing risk.

"Looking back over 36 years of practice, we used to be able to find solutions to the problems of disabled people without inventing a whole list of different and often contradictory processes as is the case today.

"We are at severe risk of treating all disabled people as innately vulnerable when this may be very far from the case," she says. "The risk averse culture is quite literally preventing people from leading independent lives, when what we should be doing is explaining any risks and then letting people make up their own minds about whether they want to take them."

If non-disabled people, too, feel that risk aversion in Britain is being taken to extremes - teachers being unable to touch their pupils for fear of sex abuse allegations, schools unable to apply plasters for the same reason - then the fear of risk is having a far more profound effect on the 10 million or so people in this country with disabilities.

The attitude of some employers that disabled people are an innate risk to themselves and to others was satirised to great effect in the TV series The Office, in which a character in a wheelchair was told she was a fire hazard. The DRC's head of policy Neil Crowther says this attitude is rife in real life, "creating unnecessary barriers between disabled and non-disabled people." He says: "Risk aversion is literally preventing disabled people from participating fully in society and now amounts to a new form of discrimination against them."

Crowther adds that while cases such as the napkin ban or the grab rail dispute look simply daft to the rest of us, they are representative of a long list of such incidents - some comic, others far more serious - that are preventing disabled people from living their lives to the full.

Behind the risk-averse culture, says Crowther, is the fear of being sued. He claims that local authorities and some employers live in fear of "an outbreak of US-style litigation in Britain" and are making "increasingly misguided assessments" of risk in an effort to head this off.

"While we all want sensible health and safety laws," says Crowther, "fear of litigation is replacing sensible action. The end result is disabled people being denied the chance to take decisions and weigh up every day risks for themselves."

"If disabled people are to become equal citizens, then the damage done in all areas of life by the misapplication of risk, as well as the belief that all disabled people are inherently vulnerable, must be challenged."

Yet according to the organisation Alarm - the Association of Local Authority Risk Managers, which represents local authorities, healthcare trusts and other publicly funded bodies such as housing associations and the police service - the switch from risk avoidance to risk management is already starting to happen.

"Local authorities have to balance controlling the risk itself and the risk to their reputation if it looks as if they are being over-controlling. Clearly, not all authorities have got that balance right," says Peter Andrews, the organisation's vice chair.

"There have been a number of examples of over-control by individual councils, but our membership is determined that these incidents will decrease.

"Clearly, over-controlling a risk can actually be worse than not controlling it at all, but in most of the sillier cases that hit the headlines, you are never made fully aware of the actual detail or chain of events."

Andrews adds that there is, however, an inherent contradiction in legislation that compels shops and businesses to ensure adequate access for wheelchair-users for example, while also viewing them as a potential fire hazard.

Alarm believes that, ironically, new corporate manslaughter legislation - which will allow individuals to be prosecuted - may "increase the tendency of many authorities to be risk averse".

The organisation also believes that while the feared onslaught of litigation against local authorities and others in the public sector has not materialised, there has been a rise in new types of claims in the country. "Local authorities are well used to claims from people who have tripped over pavements, but in some areas there has been a marked increase too in claims regarding social care or perhaps bullying in schools. The picture with regard to claims is a very patchy one across the country," says Andrews.

In an effort to stimulate debate on the culture of risk aversion, the DRC has published a debating point paper,"Whose Risk Is It Anyway?". The paper's author, Neil Crowther, accepts that there are many difficult issues to be resolved, such as what rights do those with severe learning difficulties or mental incapacity have when it comes to assessing risk? He also argues though that there is a "right balance to be struck between acceptable and unacceptable levels of risk."

The Health and Safety Executive, which is itself promoting a debate on "where the sensible balance lies in health and safety," also has examples of excessive risk aversion.

"There are stories of hanging baskets being banned in case they fall on someone, trapeze artists being made to wear hard hats, children being banned from playing conkers or made to wear goggles when they do and signs to be put up on Snowdon to warn of slippery areas," says an HEC spokesman.

"We must also consider that many of the injuries and cases of ill-health suffered at work resulted from very well-known and preventable causes."

Tony Blair has also called for a sensible debate about risk in public policy making, saying that in his view, "We are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life."

The HEC spokesman echoes the views of the Prime Minister. "Our goal is not to have a risk-free society, but one where risk is properly appreciated, understood and managed. The myth of the compensation culture creates a fear of litigation and can make organisations risk averse. It creates burdens for those handling claims and, critically, it undermines genuine claims."

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