25 April 2011

Pride and St George

If you've been hiding under a rock and not seen the flags everywhere, it might have escaped your attention that Saturday was St George's day; a day that's typically associated with racists and bigots, the EDL and the BNP.

This year I've seen several attempts from decent people to reclaim the day from the fascists, to take pride in England being the diverse place it is. After all, St George was Palestinian so he seems a bit of an odd role model for the EDL to revere.

The trouble is that I couldn't be less proud of being English.

And that list barely scratches the surface.

You could argue that the decisions made by the government don't necessarily reflect those of the populace as a whole, that the lies printed in the press aren't emblematic of the opinions of the nation. Except they are. We're a democracy, we voted for this government. Look at the sea of blue across England. It's the English that voted Tory rather than other parts of the UK. As for the press? If people stopped buying the lies, the papers would stop printing them.

So could someone, please, tell me why I should be proud of England when England so clearly isn't proud of me?

11 April 2011

♫... Pull up to the bumper, get out of the car...♫

Our ever so delightful Mayor of London has come up with another plan to make the nation despise people who don't "look disabled" just that little bit more.

Writing in The Torygraph 2 months ago he proclaimed that the only people who really deserve Blue Badges are wheelchair users, which will no doubt pour further fuel on existing fires around who should be eligible for what.

If you spend much time hanging out in crippy areas of the web you'll come across debates around who it is that needs spaz parking spaces the most: In the red corner you'll have the walkies who need to park near to the door of a store because their ability to walk is extremely limited and if they can't park near the door they can't manage to do their shopping. While over in the green corner you'll have wheelies who need the wider bays to get their chair alongside their car to transfer into it.

In fact the walkies vs wheelies parking debate was even the B story in an episode of House a few years ago when a wheelchair-using researcher got a job at the hospital and Cuddy re-allocated House's parking space to her.

I should make clear that not all disabled people are so selfish that they think that only people with their flavour of impairment are genuine and everyone else is on the take; but sadly there are sufficient people so blinkered that they can't see someone else's perspective that it's a debate that'll go on for years to come. And BoJo just put his PomPoms on to encourage that battle. Presumably so disabled people will keep fighting amongst themselves rather than uniting and turning their energies against him around issues like all the tube accessibility upgrades he cancelled.

I see both sides of the debate: I use a wheelchair but I also walk a bit. Ordinarily when parking I need room behind my car to get my wheelchair out of the boot and assemble it. But there are occasions when I walk away from my car, like a couple of months ago when I had to go to the supermarket shortly after dislocating my shoulder. Walking is excruciatingly painful for every joint in my feet and legs - hence the usual wheelchair usage - but given the state my shoulder was in on that occasion, pushing my wheelchair would've hurt even more. To make the supermarket doable at all I needed to be able to park right by the door to minimise the distance walked.

However, even when I walk I'm still visibly disabled. I have an extremely pronounced limp, I'm of restricted growth and just one glance at my ankles will tell you that ankles aren't supposed to be shaped like that. But there are genuinely disabled people who are invisibly impaired who are no doubt who Mr J has in mind when he says:

the driver reverses into your spot and bounds out, whistling, remote-locking with a backwards squirt of electrons.

I don't remember him, he died when I was 2, but my granddad had an Orange Badge (this was long before they became Blue Badges in 2000) because his lung problems caused him to struggle to walk. Apparently for the first few steps after getting out of the car he looked quite sprightly. It was only after a few steps that the war veteran began struggling to breathe. But he would've been "looking normal" long enough to press the central locking button (if they'd had central locking in his lifetime) thus be the recipient of Johnson's suspicions.

Gardner and Johnson propose that wheelchair users get an extra badge and "special" bays that can't be used by non-wheelchair using disabled people. Would I need 2 badges, one for the days when I'm using my chair and one for the days when I'm not? Because I can walk a little bit would I be ineligible for the "W badge"? If so, then Gardner would be ineligible too; we've all seen him using a zimmer on the telly rather than his chair:

Gardner stand using a zimmer in what looks like an airport screengrabed from the countdown to the hour on the BBC News channel

Boris also seems to have some trouble understanding who is actually eligible for a Blue Badge. He constantly refers to Blue Badge holders as "disabled drivers" and, yes, drivers do make up a significant number of BB users. But there are also a great number of BB holders who don't or can't drive. I think I was 5 when I got my first badge. The general minimum age has since been lowered to 2 but children younger than two can still get a badge if the child either:

  • must always be accompanied by bulky medical equipment which cannot be carried around without great difficulty, or;
  • needs to be kept near a vehicle at all times to get treatment for a condition when necessary

And obviously children that young can't drive! Then there are people who are old enough to drive but can't. My dad can't even push his wheelchair in a straight line at less than one mph, you wouldn't want him driving a vehicle that can do 100mph. Despite being driven everywhere by other people he still needs to park in Blue Badge bays because of the space needed to deploy the lift on his wheelchair accessible van. The argument of "but the driver could drop him off and then park the vehicle elsewhere," doesn't really work when someone takes as long to get out of the vehicle as my dad. Then of course there's people who can't be left alone while the driver parks the car somewhere else because they need constant assistance/supervision.

I do agree with Johnson that Blue Badge fraud is a huge problem. 6 years ago I blogged when I fell victim to Blue Badge theft for the first time. A year later I got a phone call from the police telling me that the badge had been found during a routine 'stop and search'. This was around about when I fell victim to Blue Badge theft for the second time. My car was broken into a third time later that year, but this was after my parents had bought me a Blue Badge lock for my birthday so the prospective thieves couldn't actually get the badge. I'd be thrilled if there was a clampdown on fraudulent BB use because if it were harder to get away with using a badge that isn't yours then I'd have to pay my insurance excess a little less often.

Parking can be incredibly difficult. Take my local Sainsbury's as an example. They have 7 Blue Badge bays on the surface and 296 regular bays in their underground car park. The Department for Transport recommends that at least 6% of the spaces for shopping be Blue Badge bays (plus one more BB bay for each disabled employee). Obviously my local supermarket falls far, far short of that 6%. I couldn't use the underground car park if I wanted to because there is no lift down to it. I can only shop in my nearest supermarket if one of the measly 7 bays is empty. And they rarely are. The store has such a half-arsed attitude to patrolling the bays; at any given time there are on average 3 or 4 bays occupied by cars not displaying badges and the remaining 3 or 4 bays are occupied by Blue Badge holders, whether the badge is being used legitimately or fraudulently. Which means that I usually drive into the car park, discover I can't park and take my custom to the Morrison's a little bit further away. I've tried queueing for a bay but this usually results in me being subjected to harassment because being only 31 people assume I can't actually be disabled until they see me in my wheelchair or limping.

If Sainsbury's put in the effort to clamp down on people parking in those pitiful 7 bays either without a Blue Badge or using a Blue Badge that was issued to someone not present then they'd get more custom from local disabled people. I know of other disabled people in Camden who don't bother with the store at all, they just go straight to supermarkets with adequate parking.

All Blue Badges have a photo of its owner on the back. The following are allowed to check Blue Badges to see if the person the badge is issued to is present:

  • police officers
  • traffic wardens
  • local authority parking attendants
  • civil enforcement officers

If you're asked to show your badge and refuse you can be subjected to a fine. I've been the holder of a badge (blue since 2000, orange before that) for 26 years and I've never, not even once, been asked to present it for inspection to prove that I'm the rightful owner. As I've said before, it's pretty obvious that I'm disabled when I get out of the car and either get in my wheelchair or limp away. But as I've also said already, you can't see my impairment whilst I'm still seated in the car. I recall one occasion when I parked on a single yellow line right in front of a traffic warden. His face lit up and he held his little computer thingum ready to issue a ticket. I put my Blue Badge and clock on the dashboard and he looked disappointed and walked away. He had a perfect opportunity to check that my badge was being used by the person it's issued to, but didn't bother.

The day before BoJo wrote his piece The Sunday Telegraph wrote that around half the Blue Badges currently in use are being used fraudulently. The fab Full Fact investigated but could neither confirm or deny the claim. Based on my own experience of Blue Badge theft the stat isn't surprising at all. After all, at one point there were 3 Blue Badges floating around with my name on; the one in my possession and the 2 that had been stolen from my car.

Johnson twisted the wording in his article to make the 50% stat mean something very different. What he said was:

According to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, ministers think that as many as half of all blue badges could be going to people who don’t need them.

It's the use of "going to" rather than "being used by" which utterly changes the meaning. Those two stolen badges of mine were being used fraudulently, but they weren't issued to someone that didn't need one, they were issued to me. This trick of language reiterates my earlier point that BoJo is trying to stir up tensions amongst disabled people to keep us divided.

The government keeps on with this rhetoric about how benefit reform is to "weed out the scroungers" whilst "protecting the most vulnerable". It's utter bull of course, they're planning to cut the DLA bill by 20% despite the fact that only 0.5% of claims are fraudulent. But there are many, many, disabled people who think that they'll be OK because they're genuinely disabled (despite there being a 1 in 5 chance they'll lose their DLA) and they constantly moan about the (almost non-existent) fakers. On Facebook and so on I've seen many people with my own impairment moaning about people that don't look disabled getting benefits because that's the kind of bile this government is encouraging. And with BoJo's ideologically driven article he's pushing that Tory agenda even further in encouraging wheelchair users to be (even more) hateful of ambulant disabled people, while paying almost no attention to the real problem: That of theft and fraudulent use. A problem that could be dramatically reduced if only traffic wardens used their powers to check badges were being rightfully used.

Johnson actually had the gall to say:

We are a warm-hearted species, and we like to confer benefits on as many people as possible,

Oh the irony...