A few months ago, a friend sent me a car sticker. Not a standard gift for your average 31-year-old girl-about-town, but it gave me a much needed laugh: “My Doctor Knows Why I Need a Disabled Parking Permit. You Don’t Need To.”
Four years, one wheelchair and multiple colourful walking sticks since my diagnosis with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and I still haven’t worked out how to “look disabled”. Spontaneously dislocating joints, I have nailed. Juggling pain medications, fatigue and a career, I’m getting my head around.
Sadly, being a younger woman who can generally stand up out of her car (albeit with a propensity to fall over afterwards), I often get “The Look” – a sideways glance, raised eyebrow, and vaguely appalled shake of the head. Sometimes, it’s accompanied by “The Tut”, “The Mutter” or “The Strangely Aggressive Comment to No One In Particular About Benefit Scroungers”.
People understandably get very frustrated by those who “fake” disability. Figures released from the Department of Transport have shown that there are very few prosecutions of people “misusing” blue badges. These are badges being used by those without disabilities, often stolen, borrowed off a relative, or most grotesque of all, used after the person who needed it has died.
Only 59 per cent of local authorities have a policy of prosecuting people who misuse badges, and only 65 per cent of those had actually prosecuted anyone. Today, this has led to my Twitter feed filling up with people with less visible disabilities telling their stories of strangers yelling at them in car parks, demanding to know if they really need that badge.
I know, that on the whole, these strangers think they are helping the “real” disabled people – but we don’t want or need that kind of support.
I need blue badge spaces so I can be independent, and not just to save me a walk (though that’s reason enough). Those spaces are wider, so I can park the large car I need to transport my wheelchair, and open the doors without slamming them into others. But go to pretty much any large shopping centre or supermarket, and you will find people with no badges at all, parked in the disabled places – and these are rarely tackled either.
I actually feel bad for local authorities, because their funding is minimal, they are relying on low numbers of civil enforcement officers to police this, and have to find the money to not only catch the perpetrators (which, given that disabled people look JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, is challenging), but then prosecute them. That is money which could be spent on countless other (arguably more useful) things.
The blue badge system has seen multiple piecemeal changes from government over the years, and next year, a number of other conditions will become eligible for the permits. However, there doesn’t seem to be any additional funding for these changes. The most local authorities can do is ensure badges need to be renewed every three years – and as a disabled person, I do love a bit of additional paperwork.
These renewals can require expensive reassessments. My lifelong, degenerative, incurable condition apparently may have been cured in my move from London to Leeds this year, so I require reassessment (because I don’t yet claim a personal independence payment, or PIP).
I do not need my medical degree to see the colossal waste of taxpayers’ money this has caused. In effect, the onus is put on the disabled person to renew, due to the dishonesty of others.
Do we need to stop people using badges inappropriately? Yes. Is getting angry at individual local authorities going to achieve this? Probably not.
We need a wholesale redesign of this system at government level, with service users like me involved from the word go – not just as part of a tokenistic “consultation” afterwards. Local authorities need funding. They also need a system they can effectively monitor and which doesn’t just pass the pressure onto service users to juggle more paperwork and assessments.
I haven’t put those car stickers on Eric the Vauxhall Astra yet – but I may soon have to. As for the blue badge: if you want it, you can have it – but only if you take my disability too.
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