DWP hides seven secret benefit suicide reviews

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to publish nine secret reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants, despite finally admitting that seven of them relate to people who took their own lives.

DWP only released the information after Disability News Service (DNS) lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

DWP has also admitted that five of the nine reviews – which all relate to deaths that took place in the 16 months from August 2014 to January 2016 – contain recommendations for improvements in the department’s policies or procedures.

Ministers are refusing to publish the nine reviews, even though civil servants prepared them for release on 23 May – more than three months ago – under freedom of information laws.

The information commissioner is now investigating DWP’s refusal to release the nine documents.

When they are eventually released, they will be heavily redacted and similar in format to 49 reviews that covered the period from February 2012 to August 2014 and were released by DWP in May, following a 21-month battle with DNS to keep them secret.

The request to see the latest nine peer reviews was submitted by DNS on 15 April.

In an email last month, DWP claimed it did not understand the DNS freedom of information request, even though one of its civil servants had admitted two months previously that the peer reviews had been prepared for release.

Many of the 49 reviews released in May concerned the deaths of disabled people who had applied for employment and support allowance (ESA), through the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) process.

And many of the reviews – 40 of which refer to benefit claimants who took their own lives – involved long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) who had been reassessed for ESA.

Although crucial parts of the peer reviews were missing because they were heavily redacted, DNS found 10 key recommendations for DWP to take national action to improve the way it treated benefit claimants who were seen as “vulnerable”.

DNS has also submitted a complaint to ICO about DWP’s refusal to say if those 10 recommendations were ever carried out.

John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle, said: “We anticipate that many of these deaths will have been as a result of the WCA and we await the release of the full details.”

Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.

The nine peer reviews – now renamed internal process reviews – are likely to be scrutinised closely by disabled activists for further evidence of failings in how DWP has dealt with benefit claimants labelled as “vulnerable”, many of whom are likely to be mental health service-users or have learning difficulties.

They could provide crucial evidence for calls – led by Black Triangle, and backed by many other disabled activists – for former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to face a criminal investigation, following his refusal to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the WCA in 2010.

They want to hold Duncan Smith and his former employment minister Chris Grayling to account for their failure to improve the safety of the WCA, despite being warned that it risked causing further deaths.

Black Triangle has provided a dossier of evidence to Police Scotland, which McArdle believes shows that Duncan Smith and Grayling should be investigated for the Scottish criminal offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official.

Last month, the parents of David Barr, from Glenrothes, Fife, backed these calls for Duncan Smith and Grayling to be prosecuted over these failings, which they believe led to the death of their son, who took his own life in August 2013.

Documents examined by DNS show that the circumstances of David Barr’s death mirrored those of Stephen Carré in January 2010.

Duncan Smith and Grayling failed to take steps to improve the WCA after May 2010 despite being warned by coroner Tom Osborne – in what is known as a prevention of future deaths report – that the test’s flaws risked causing further deaths of people with mental health conditions.

McArdle said the latest delays in releasing the secret reviews showed DWP were “serial law breakers and enemies of the truth”.

He pointed to: the department’s failure to respond to Osborne’s prevention of future deaths report; DWP having to be taken to tribunal to release the 49 peer reviews; and its continuing refusal to fulfil its promise to the courts to carry out a pilot project to test new ways to make the WCA safer for people with mental health conditions.

He said the failings identified by the court had “led to the tragic deaths of so many disabled people and devastated the lives of tens of thousands more who are chronically ill”.

McArdle said: “They are now dragging their feet on releasing these further peer reviews.”

He said DWP was also still refusing to reveal whether any of the recommendations made at national and local level in the 49 reviews had been implemented.

He said: “All we know is that outrages and tragedies are continuing to occur, unabated.

“Taken all together, these instances of illegal behaviour and wilful concealment of wrongdoing by the department over these past six years exhibit utter contempt for the rule of law and the fundamental human rights of disabled people – up to and including the very right to life itself.

“It can, and must be remedied urgently before further lives are lost. It is a matter of life and death and the longer our case against them is drawn out the more lives will be lost and the more complicit British society as a whole becomes.”

A DWP spokeswoman said in a statement to DNS: “The department is aware of your request.

“However, as you currently have a complaint with the information commissioner we are unable to comment further.”

25 August 2016

 

 

Government ‘has stripped Paralympians of their Motability vehicles’

Paralympians heading to Rio next week have lost their Motability vehicles after being reassessed as part of the government’s programme of benefit cuts and reforms, a member of the ParalympicsGB team has revealed.

Some Paralympians have spoken previously of the importance of the support they receive from the benefits system, particularly through disability living allowance (DLA), but this is the first confirmation that any of them have lost that support as a result of the government’s austerity programme.

The concerns were raised by wheelchair-racer Ben Rowlings, one of the young track stars of the British team, who is set to compete in the T34 100 metres and 800 metres in Rio, and holds the British record at 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres.

He currently receives the higher rate mobility component of DLA, which has allowed him to use that payment to lease a vehicle through the Motability scheme.

But like hundreds of thousands of other disabled people, he has been told he will be reassessed for the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP) – introduced in 2013 in a bid to cut working-age DLA spending by 20 per cent – and that an assessment of his eligibility will take place next year.

The Shropshire resident does much of his training 50 miles away in Coventry, alongside fellow Paralympians Kare Adenegan and Mel Nicholls, and told Disability News Service this week that the PIP reassessment could put his career in jeopardy if it results in him losing his Motability car.

He said: “It is something that’s on my mind because without the access to having my Motability car… I wouldn’t be able to get to any of the training that I do.

“I need my car, I need the support to get me around to places, and training and work, because racing is my job, and without the support of the Motability [car] and the DLA, I wouldn’t be able to get to training.”

The 20-year-old said he knew of fellow Paralympians who have already lost their Motability cars after being reassessed for PIP.

He said: “There have been Paralympians who have been told that they are too able to claim Motability and they have had to fight to get the cars back because they have been taken off them.

“I don’t know too much about it, I haven’t spoken to them about it because that’s a personal matter for them, but it’s something I’m a little bit concerned about.”

He said he was not comfortable providing further details about colleagues, and could not say how many fellow team-members had lost their Motability vehicles, but added: “All I know is anyone with disabilities is getting assessed at the moment, so it’s a possibility for any of us.”

Last month, another ParalympicsGB star wheelchair-racer, Hannah Cockroft, told DNS she was “scared” that she would lose her independence when she was reassessed for PIP.

Cockroft, who won double gold at London 2012, has also yet to be assessed for PIP, but she said that she was dreading her eventual reassessment, the possibility of having her support cut, and potentially losing the car she leases through the Motability scheme.

Motability has said that it expects 35,000 vehicles will have to be returned by disabled people during 2016 as a result of the PIP reassessment programme.

Of Motability customers reassessed for PIP so far, 44 per cent of them have lost their entitlement to the scheme and have had to hand their vehicles back.

Activists who took part in a national day of action last month – organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), WinVisible and the Mental Health Resistance Network – said they believed PIP was “rotten to the core”, and pointed to growing evidence of the “shoddy nature” of PIP assessments, which are carried out by the government’s contractors, Capita and Atos.

The British Paralympic Association – which manages the ParalympicsGB team – has not responded to a request for a comment.

Asked how removing a Motability vehicle from a Paralympian training for Rio would have helped their medal efforts, a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “This question is unfounded.

“Decisions on Motability are made based on claimants’ individual needs and after consideration of all the evidence, including an assessment and information provided by the claimant and their GP.

“All claimants have the opportunity to appeal their decision.”

Asked how many Paralympians had lost their Motability vehicles after being reassessed, she said: “We do not ask PIP claimants whether they are Paralympians, and they are not required to disclose this information when making a claim.

“Therefore, we are unable to answer this question.”

But she said there were now more people on the Motability scheme than before PIP was introduced*, while the “majority of people leaving the Motability scheme will be eligible for a one-off payment of £2,000**, which will help ensure their mobility needs continue to be met”.

Asked if DWP accepted that DLA and PIP played a vital part in providing the support that disabled people need to live independently and contribute to society, she said: “Yes. DLA and PIP provide important support for those who have been assessed as meeting the criteria for the benefit(s).”

Meanwhile, research by the MS Society suggests that up to one in 10 of the 100,000 people with multiple sclerosis in the UK could lose the highest rate of mobility support as a result of the PIP reassessment process.

The charity has estimated that more than 1,000 people with MS have already had their benefits cut since PIP was introduced.

Under DLA, 93 per cent of people with MS who received the benefit [not everyone with MS claims DLA or PIP] were awarded the highest rate of the mobility component, and of the 4,349 DLA claimants with MS who have so far been reassessed and awarded any kind of PIP award, only 70 per cent have received the equivalent rate.

The charity is calling on people with MS to share their experiences of the reassessment process with the government’s second independent review of PIP.

*The Motability scheme is still growing slowly overall, at about 1.5 per cent a year, because of the number of new members joining, and currently has 651,000 vehicles (636,000 through the car scheme and 15,000 powered wheelchairs and scooters). Motability expects the overall number of customers to start falling at some stage in the reassessment process but does “not expect the number of vehicles to fall below 600,000 over the next few year”.

**This payment applies to those customers who joined the scheme before January 2013.

25 August 2016

 

 

Paralympian calls for inquiry into ‘unacceptable’ Rio failures

The failure of the organisers of the Rio Paralympics to treat the event on a par with the Olympic Games is “unacceptable” and has to be challenged, according to a leading figure in the UK Paralympic movement.

David Clarke, who chairs the Athletes’ Commission, a group of current and retired Paralympians who advise the British Paralympic Association (BPA), spoke out after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) warned of a financial crisis facing next month’s event.

Clarke, who captained the ParalympicsGB blind football team at London 2012, called for a joint inquiry by the IPC and the International Olympic Committee, once the Paralympics are over.

Among the cuts in Rio announced by the IPC so far are a reduction in staffing, cuts to transport services, and the closure of media centres at some venues, as well as a closure of one of the main Olympic parks.

Clarke told Disability News Service (DNS): “There’s certainly a concern that whatever limited resources there have been have been thrown at the Olympics, to the detriment of the Paralympics, and that is the bit that is unacceptable from my point-of-view.

“Some appear to consider it to be a secondary event, but it’s not, and it forms a fundamental part of the bidding process and should be delivered with equal professionalism.”

He added: “If it transpires that budget assigned to the Paralympic Games has been swallowed up in delivering the Olympics then that is a huge step back; it shows that one event has been favoured over the other.”

He said it was crucial that athletes are able to “perform at their best in the very best environment”, despite the funding crisis and poor ticket sales.

The IPC said last week that the Rio organisers had sold only 12 per cent of available tickets for Paralympic events.

That situation appears to have eased slightly this week, after three days of strong sales, with organisers reportedly claiming they have now sold 20 per cent of tickets available, after selling a record 133,000 tickets on Tuesday.

But Clarke said there was “a legitimate risk” that Britain’s Paralympians would now not be able to “appreciate the experience of taking part in the Paralympic Games, which is the pinnacle for their sport”.

He said: “There is an element of the experience that is created by full stadiums… a number of athletes have drawn parallels with the [2015 athletics] world championships in Doha [which was hit by low attendances] and how challenging that was coming off the back of London.”

He said: “The fact that we have got to this and we are two weeks away from it being the height of our athletes’ competitive lives, it’s unacceptable that they will have to operate in [this] environment.”

Clarke has been involved in the “meticulous planning” for the games by ParalympicsGB – with BPA officials already in Rio, two weeks ahead of the opening ceremony – that has made sure that “no stone is unturned”.

He said: “The professionalism is remarkable to witness and the sheer level of planning that goes into it all to make sure that we deliver the success that we have agreed with UK Sport and everyone else, but of course fundamentally you have to rely upon the… committee responsible for delivering the games to deliver what they said they were going to deliver.”

Clarke said he believe that the quality of the sport will ensure that Rio turns out to be “a very good games”, despite the financial and ticketing problems.

But he added: “The Paralympic movement has consistently built, probably since Seoul [in 1988] but definitely since Atlanta [in 1996], year on year on year, on becoming an equivalent, parallel event of elite sport and anything that detracts from that movement moving forward is unacceptable.

“If that has happened as a result of money being diverted to the Olympics from the Paralympics, some very serious questions need to be asked at a very high level because that is equally unacceptable.

“Afterwards, I do think the IOC and the IPC have to understand how it got to this and what can be done in future to prevent it [happening again].”

The IPC’s British president, Sir Philip Craven, has described the financial situation facing the Rio games as unique in the 56-year history of the Paralympics.

Sir Philip said this week that some state-run Brazilian companies had signed contracts to sponsor the games, following an IPC meeting on 18 September with Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer.

But he said the extra revenue this produced would not “fully plug the Rio 2016 deficit” and so the organising committee and IPC would need to make cuts that were “likely to impact nearly every stakeholder attending the games”.

The Conservative peer Lord [Chris] Holmes told the BBC this week that the Rio organising committee was guilty of “cannibalisation” of funding set aside for the Paralympics in order to fill gaps in the Olympics budget.

Lord Holmes, who won nine Paralympic swimming gold medals and later became director of Paralympic integration at London 2012, told BBC’s Newsnight: “More than a step backwards, this is a leap into Paralympic pre-history.

“There’s been a disrespect, a misunderstanding, a lack of understanding for the Paralympic Games, for the potential and for the impact they could have made for the people of Brazil.”

IPC did confirm this week that all 165 countries that had planned to attend the games would be able to do so.

IPC had feared that some countries would have to pull out of the games because the Rio organising committee had failed to pay their travel grants by the end of last month, as previously agreed.

One of the stars of the ParalympicsGB team, wheelchair-racer Ben Rowlings, told DNS this week that he saw the poor ticket sales as an opportunity “to open it up to schools and get a fresh audience in”.

He added: “It’s a Paralympic games, the biggest competition a lot of us athletes will ever race at and I think it will be a real step forward for the Paralympic movement if we can get schools and younger spectators [to attend] and show this is what Paralympic sport is, just [as] they did in London.”

Sir Philip said in a statement: “At this point it is difficult for us to expect the full venues that we saw in Beijing or London, or expect to see in Tokyo in four years’ time.

“However, we hope the passion of the Brazilian people and their desire to support and see Brazilian athletes win medals will see them turn out en-masse.

“People power could really determine the outcome of these games.”

Meanwhile, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has dismissed an appeal by the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) against the IPC’s decision to ban all Russian athletes from the games, following revelations of state-sponsored doping.

In delivering its ruling, the court ruled that the decision to ban the RPC was “made in accordance with the IPC Rules and was proportionate in the circumstances”.

And it noted that the Russian Paralympic Committee “did not file any evidence contradicting the facts on which the IPC decision was based”.

25 August 2016

 

 

DPAC’s 1,000-name letter backs Corbyn, disabled people’s champion

More than 1,000 Deaf and disabled people and their allies have backed Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to be re-elected as Labour leader, after signing a letter recognising his years of support for key disability rights campaigns.

The letter was written by the grassroots campaigning network Disabled People Against Cuts, which said it wanted to repay Corbyn – and his deputy John McDonnell – for their past support.

The letter says: “You have supported deaf and disabled people’s causes for many, many years.

“You have spoken in Parliament. You have voted against vicious welfare reforms that have blighted our lives, often having to rebel against the Whip to do so.

“You have campaigned with us during court vigils, at street protests and you spoke at the ‘10,000 cuts and counting’ memorial for people who had died as a result of welfare reform.”

The letter adds: “During our campaign to save the [Independent Living Fund] when we asked the then Labour Leadership for help and got none, you publicly supported our campaign.”

And it tells Corbyn: “You have supported deaf and disabled people in so many ways over so many years and now it is time for us to have a chance to rally in support of you and John.”

Many of those who signed the letter have added comments of their own.

Disability rights activist David Gillon said: “A return to New Labour is a return to ignoring disabled people.”

Another to sign the letter was the veteran inclusive education campaigner Micheline Mason, who said: “You have also both supported our fight for inclusion, which, as you know, is another word for socialism in practice.

“We will win this struggle together, but thank you so much for keeping the flame of hope burning in dark times.”

Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOW campaign, praised Corbyn’s support, which helped secure a parliamentary debate for the WOW petition, and said: “Most Labour MPs ‘talk the talk’ about disabled people getting true equality of opportunity in our society. Jeremy ‘walks the walk’.”

Another to sign the letter, Katy Marchant, said: “While the media and parliament has largely ignored the brutal attacks by Tory Austerity on disabled people and the enormous suffering and deaths this has caused, both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have steadfastly spoken out and supported us.”

Cornelia Roesskamp said: “You have supported inclusive education when in and out of ‘fashion’ because you understand that it is [a] human rights issue fundamentally.”

Janine Booth, a member of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, said: “As well as the comments in the letter, I’d like to add that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s support for autistic and other neurodivergent people fighting for our rights has been nothing short of outstanding.

“Only a Labour government under their leadership will deliver the radical policy changes that we need after years of Tory austerity and bigotry.”

Mandy Bell said: “As the mother of a disabled child, I believe that Jeremy Corbyn is the ONLY candidate of choice, the only person I would trust my daughter’s future to.”

And Geraldine O’Connor said: “I thank you for defending people with disabilities, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

“You have fought for us, now we will fight for you.”

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s opponent, former shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith, claimed in an interview with the Guardian that – if he became prime minister – he would rewrite the eligibility rules for personal independence payment (PIP), scrap the work capability assessment, and move from outsourcing benefits assessments to private firms, such as Atos, Capita and Maximus, to using the NHS and social services to carry out the tests.

But his claims to support disabled people were undermined when a video emerged on the Independent website the following day of him using disablist language to describe Corbyn at a campaign rally.

Smith told the rally: “We’ve got to get two million people who actually voted Tory 12 months ago to vote Labour, in 106 seats.

“And what you won’t have from me is some lunatic at the top of the Labour party, you’ll have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain.”

25 August 2016

 

 

Justice project will help DPOs tackle discrimination through the courts

A new user-led project will help disabled people in London use the law to fight for their independent living rights, and combat the discrimination they face from providers of goods and services.

Inclusion London’s Disability Justice Project will support disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) across the capital to make better use of the Social Care Act, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, through information, training sessions and ongoing support.

The project will also build “better, stronger” relationships between DPOs and lawyers with expertise in those areas, and encourage them to look at cases from an equality and human rights perspective and understand the social model of disability and the history of the disabled people’s movement.

Svetlana Kotova, the disabled lawyer who has been appointed project coordinator, said Inclusion London hopes the project will help to launch important “strategic” discrimination and human rights cases that will “tackle the most pressing issues that disabled people are facing”.

She said the project came about because DPOs were telling Inclusion London that disabled people were facing discrimination “in all aspects of their lives”.

She said: “We thought it was time to build the capacity of DPOs to ensure they can use the law effectively to advocate for the rights of disabled people.”

The Disability Justice Project will build on the success of Inclusion London’s Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations Legal Network, which looks at how DPOs can use case law and legislation in their advice, advocacy, policy and campaigns work, and builds partnerships between lawyers and DPOs.

A key focus of the new project will be the Care Act, which only became law two years ago and “has a lot of good things in there but doesn’t necessarily take a rights-based approach to care”, she said.

Kotova said Inclusion London wanted to both ensure the Care Act was implemented properly – there are concerns that local authorities are “not always fulfilling their duties as they should” – and influence that implementation by emphasising the importance of taking account of disabled people’s rights.

It comes at a time when local authorities are making further cuts to their social care budgets, which will make it even harder for disabled people to secure the support they need and are entitled to, she said.

The project aims to build the capacity of advocacy workers employed by DPOs in London to provide advice and information, so they can use “strong legal arguments” in their casework when fighting for the rights of disabled people.

Kotova also hopes that DPOs will be able to use the relevant legislation in their campaigns and discussions with local authorities.

She said: “In social care, we definitely know people are finding it much harder to get the right levels of support.

“They increasingly have to battle with local authorities who want to cut their packages.

“We do hear that people are really concerned that their packages are going to be cut. They are expecting this or it is happening.”

The project will also focus on the Equality Act, and its legal protection against providers of goods and services who discriminate against disabled people.

One of the problems in enforcing the Equality Act, she said, is that it is much harder for disabled people to secure legal assistance than for cases taken under the Care Act.

Kotova said the difficulty of enforcing the provisions of the Equality Act was a “huge weakness” of the legislation.

She said: “Even if you are prepared to [take a case to court], it’s often really difficult to get legal advice and representation with these cases, so sometimes disabled people are left alone to go to court ourselves and take all the risks.”

She said that Inclusion London was hearing of cases of discrimination in transport, access to buildings and shops, and in securing information in an accessible format, “even from government departments”, and particularly in obtaining information in an easy-read format, which she said was “almost never possible”.

She was particularly surprised to learn, after Inclusion London issued a call for disabled people’s experiences of banking services, that there were significant problems in that sector.

She said: “We got a lot of people coming back to us saying how difficult they find it, even though I personally thought banks were a long way ahead with how they try and make their services more accessible for disabled people.

“It tells us that even in areas where we thought things are not that bad, things are actually bad.”

There will be a launch event for the Disability Justice Project in November. Any lawyers or London-based Deaf and disabled people’s organisations who would like to attend can email Svetlana Kotova at Svetlana.Kotova@inclusionlondon.org.uk  

25 August 2016

 

 

Countdown to Rio: Rowlings ready to ‘smash it’ after years of ‘selfish’ preparation

When Ben Rowlings lines up on the start-line in Rio, he will know that he could not have done anything more to prepare himself for his bid to win a medal.

The wheelchair racer, who is taking part in his first Paralympic Games at the age of 20 – only five years after being spotted at a British Athletics talent identification day – describes himself as stubborn, single-minded and “quite selfish”.

“I think a lot of athletes have to be quite selfish, and just kind of look after themselves and make sure nothing impacts on their training or the bubble that they are in,” he says.

“But I’m hard-working and I make sure that I put the hours in in training, and the results are showing on the track.”

He has been doing “long, hard sessions” in the gym, two or three times a day, six days a week, and believes there are “very few” of his competitors who will have been able to match that.

But he has also benefited from the peer support he has received as part of the training group set up by ParalympicsGB team-mate Mel Nicholls and her coach, which is based at their athletics club, Coventry Godiva Harriers.

A mixture of disabled children, professional athletes – including fellow Paralympian Kare Adenegan – and enthusiastic amateurs come together in the group.

Nicholls has previously told Disability News Service (DNS) that Paralympic athletes train within the group alongside everyone else. “It’s a social thing, it’s a confidence thing, a health thing and a competitive thing as well,” she said.

Rowlings told DNS this week: “We have got people aged six or seven up to guys that are mid-to-late 40s.

“It’s good to have a varied group of people because if you’re having a bad day in training, one of the little kids will make you laugh… it just kind of takes your mind off the serious side of training a little bit, [and allows you to] enjoy it and take it for what it is.”

The importance of support for Paralympic athletes – a long way from the Channel 4-inspired “superhuman” image – is one he is only too willing to accept.

He says: “I’ve got the easy job. I have to go round in circles, I get the fun bit of it, but without the support of coaches, sponsors, family, friends; without those people behind me I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today.

“I wouldn’t have gone to the world championships, I wouldn’t have medalled at European championships. Without them, I wouldn’t be anywhere.

“I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a good support network around me.”

It’s not only the support of the higher-profile organisations – sponsors BT and Top End, which makes his wheelchairs, and his National Lottery funding – which has been “fundamental” to his success, but smaller organisations, such as The Wrekin Housing Trust, that he says has helped with £100 towards his costs.

“A hundred quid is a set of tyres or it’s a set of gloves or it’s a week training in Loughborough with a really good group [of other athletes].”

Rowlings is competing in Rio in the T34 100 metres and 800 metres, but it is in the two-lap event that he has the strongest chance of medalling.

Ranked in the top four or five in the world at 800 metres, and holder of the British record at 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres, he believes he has a genuine chance of a medal.

“I’m in really good shape, the best shape of my life. Everything has been going really well since I found out about selection.

“It’ll be a close race, there are four or five guys that will be really competitive going into it, so it will be a good race to be part of.”

Although he is competing first in the 100 metres – where he is ranked in the world’s top eight – he is treating that “as a kind of warm-up for the 800”.

Ideally, he would be racing in a 400 metres as well but there is only a 100 metres and 800 metres in his impairment category in Rio.

“I prefer 400 to 800 just because there’s less to think about,” he says, “you just go as hard as you can for one lap and whoever’s the quickest will get it.

“With the 800 you have to think a little bit more. You have to react so quickly if there’s a break off the front, you have to cover it immediately.

“If there’s a guy coming off the back you have to make sure you’re in the right position to follow him.”

He has known there will be no 400 metres in Rio for the last couple of years, so he’s been able to work on his strategy for the longer race.

“It’s something I’ve been able to plan for,” he says. “I know how to race in every single scenario that could possibly come up in Rio, so I’m going to make sure I’m in the best position when that bell goes for the final lap.”

Despite his strong chance of a medal, his target is just to reach the final of the two events.

“I think once I’m in the final anything could happen,” he says. “Guys could false start, it could be raining, the race could just pan out perfectly for me, or it could pan out horribly.

“I know I’m working harder than most of the other guys on the start line, I know I’m in the best shape possible, I know I’ve [taken care of] every little detail I could possibly do going into Rio.”

Like many of the ParalympicsGB team, he is careful in his responses to some of the more controversial questions put to him by DNS.

On the International Paralympic Committee’s failure to store urine and blood samples from medallists at the Beijing and London Paralympics, so they can be retested in the future, he says: “I have no idea. My job is to go round in circles.

“I know I get drug tested, I know that UK Anti-Doping have been really hot on making sure that everyone at Paralympic standard is a clean athlete and I know I’m 100 per cent clean.

“As far as what the IPC does with their samples, I have no idea.”

On the low number of Paralympic tickets sold by the Brazilian organisers – just 12 per cent, when we spoke at the start of this week – he says that he sees that as an opportunity “to open it up to schools and get a fresh audience in”.

He adds: “It’s a Paralympic Games, the biggest competition a lot of us athletes will ever race at, and I think it will be a real step forward for the Paralympic movement if we can get schools and younger spectators [to attend] and show this is what Paralympic sport is, just [as] they did in London.”

But he does speak out on one highly controversial topic, the government’s reassessment of working-age disabled people claiming disability living allowance (DLA) for the new personal independence payment.

He has been told he will be reassessed next year, and it is something that concerns him, particularly as he uses his DLA mobility support to lease a Motability vehicle.

He says: “It is something that’s on my mind because without the access to having my Motability car… I wouldn’t be able to get to any of the training that I do.

“I need my car, I need the support to get me around to places, and training and work, because racing is my job, and without the support of the Motability [car] and the DLA, I wouldn’t be able to get to training.”

And he says he knows fellow Paralympians have already had their Motability vehicles taken away after being reassessed for PIP.

Putting such controversies aside, what he looks forward to most of all in Rio is the racing.

“I worked my backside off for four years,” he says. “I’m going to make sure I race it well, being able to show myself on a world stage.

“It’s a 400 metre track that I have to go around twice, and I’ve raced the guys all year round, I know them inside and out, I’ve done everything I can in training to make sure I’m ready for that race at Rio, and I’m just going to smash it.”

25 August 2016

 

 

Countdown to Rio: Baker and JP are ready for anything as they head to Brazil

It’s nearly four years since Natasha Baker claimed two gold medals at London 2012, but the “fantastic” memories she has of her home Paralympic Games means it feels to her as if it was only last year.

And she says her preparations for next month’s dressage competition in Rio – she is competing again in three events, with her “special boy” Cabral, known as JP – could not have gone better.

She told Disability News Service: “It’s been a really fantastic year. I have won every one of the selection competitions. It couldn’t have gone better.”

And despite helping her win three golds in London, JP’s performance has even improved.

“He’s going better now than he was in London, which is fantastic,” she says. “He seems softer, more connected.”

She places much of the credit for this down to a change of trainer since London.

She says: “Everything seems to kind of slot into place; we are in a really good place at the moment and I’m feeling really excited about it.”

JP has flown before, when Baker visited the Middle East last year for a competition, and she also believes they are ready for any weather conditions that Rio might throw at them.

She says: “He’s used to the heat, he actually goes far better in the heat than in the cold. So I feel pretty prepared.

“We only ride outdoors at home, so if it pours down with rain I think we will be used to that as well.”

As for her hopes from the games, she says: “Obviously, three medals would make me have a grin from ear to ear like a Cheshire cat, but with horses you just never know what can happen, especially when we are travelling halfway around the world.

“To come home with some medals would just be amazing, [but] as long as I go out and do my best and he does his best I will be a happy girl.”

But she warns that other countries are “catching us up. They are chasing us at quite a rapid pace so to go out there and contend for a gold medal would be amazing, and hopefully we can do enough to bring it home.”

She is due to compete on 13, 15 and 16 September.

Baker was one of the Paralympians who spoke out to DNS before London 2012 about the importance of disability living allowance (DLA) to her and other athletes, and who spoke of their fears that government spending cuts could jeopardise their independence and that of other disabled people.

Since then, the hugely controversial process to reassess working-age DLA claimants for the new personal independence payment has begun, with tens of thousands of disabled people already having their support cut or removed completely.

Four years on from London 2012, Baker has decided not to speak about the reassessment process.

Asked how she had been affected, she says only: “Yes, I’m all sorted. No change.” She declines to comment further.

Speaking before the revelations of the Rio 2016 organising committee’s funding crisis, she says London 2012 “really propelled Paralympic sport forward”, and hopes that the Rio games will “do that even more so”.

And she says she was not put off by health concerns about the Zika virus. “I’m not planning on having children any time soon.

“Obviously it can be a concern but we have been given the best possible advice by the BPA [the British Paralympic Association], and they are updating it constantly on what’s going on and the latest medical advice, so I know we are in safe hands.”

25 August 2016

 

 

Countdown to Rio: Skelhon ready to medal after winning battle with motivation

Matt Skelhon admits that he has struggled with his motivation in the lead-up to his third Paralympic games.

Having competed in Beijing – where he won shooting gold – and in London, where he won silver and bronze, and becoming world champion in 2014 with a new world record, he confesses that there was a spell “quite a few months back” when it was “a bit of a challenge to get motivated”.

Look back at his social media posts from earlier this year, he talked about how “training hasn’t been great” (January) and how he had been “struggling a little bit during training” (May).

But the closer Rio came, he tells Disability News Service, the less that has become a problem.

Motivation can be “tricky”, he says. “I just get on with it. If I am having a couple of weeks when I am thinking it’s not going very well, and I don’t know where I’m going, I just think, ‘Well, it’s only a phase.’

“I just keep training, because I know the work I am putting in is not going to waste, it’s being stored somewhere.

“I know that when I get motivated again it’s going to come out, and I’m going to shoot better for it.”

Although he describes himself as “laid back”, he is also fiercely confident in his abilities, and his target is simple: two gold medals.

“I always go anywhere to win,” he says.

But he also goes to Rio knowing that nothing is guaranteed, because shooting is a sport where the margins between success and failure can be tiny.

He says: “The margins that win finals in shooting now are so small, that sometimes it’s not down to an athlete’s performance, it might be down to not spotting a wind flag, or the wind changing direction as you took a shot; maybe the ammunition is not quite right.

“With equipment and ammunition, there’s always a little bit of something that’s not in your control.

“The margins are so small, so you have got to make sure that everything you have got control over is perfect.”

He will occasionally feel nerves before a competition, he says, but he accepts this and admits it to himself and his coaches.

Skelhon says: “Nothing is going to stop me competing unless I keel over and die on the line.

“At the end of the day, nobody is shooting at me, we are all shooting at the same distance. I just get on and do it.”

25 August 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com