Home Office’s ‘inhumane’ deportation decision poses ‘risk to life’

Autistic rights campaigners are calling on the government to reverse its “inhumane” decision to ignore detailed, independent medical evidence and force a young disabled man with high support needs and his family to return to India.

Disabled activists from Autistic UK say the medical evidence proves that Gopul Anand is not well enough to make the journey and that the UK government’s attempt to deport him and his family is a “grave breach” of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Gopul is autistic, and also has schizophrenia, epilepsy and learning difficulties, and his family insist – backed up by evidence from experts including social workers and his mental health team – that he is too ill to travel because of the risk both to his own health and the safety of other passengers.

British Airways has even told the family that it would not allow 24-year-old Gopul to fly with the airline because of his current poor health.

Errol Kerr, chair of Autistic UK, said the Home Office’s “lack of consideration” for Gopul’s situation was “horrifying” and suggested “a wider attitude towards disabled people and immigrants”.

Gopul’s father Shekhar, a social and economic development expert, who has worked with Oxfam for 15 years in Africa, Asia and the UK, has told the UK government that his family accepts its decision that they must return to India, but is pleading for time for his son’s health to improve.

Shekhar originally came to the UK with his family seven years ago for a senior position in Oxfam’s Oxford office.

Gopul had been educated in a mainstream school in India, but his mental health deteriorated sharply following the death of an uncle in 2013.

His parents tried to take him on a flight to India that year to visit family, but he was too unwell to travel.

His health dramatically deteriorated even further the following year, and he was eventually sectioned and spent time in an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) in 2015.

Gopul spent 10 months in the ATU, and his family had to appeal to a tribunal to have him released. He still has nightmares and flashbacks because of the abuse he experienced at the hands of a member of staff at the unit.

He is also self-harming and experiencing hallucinations and panic attacks, and is currently so unwell that it is almost impossible for him to leave the family home in Cowley, Oxford, to attend events where he might interact with strangers.

Two years ago, Shekhar’s visa expired, and he and the family have now submitted detailed, independent evidence to the government that shows why Gopul is not well enough to travel back to India.

One of Gopul’s support workers has described how his condition has deteriorated in the last year and said that taking him to India would be “practically impossible and very risky for Gopul, family and any members of the public present during the journey by any means of transport” and that escorting him would be “unsafe and dangerous”.

The move to India, she said, could cause “irreversible damage” to his mental health.

His mental health team agrees and says his condition has deteriorated in the last 12 months, with an increase in his impulsive behaviours, and that he has become increasingly unsettled, aggressive and violent.

They say it would cause him “extreme anxiety” to travel to India and that he would be a threat to himself and other passengers.

Shekhar said: “The risk is that he will get into severe depression and he will not be able to come out of it. There is a risk to his life.”

As well as the risks to his health from the anxiety caused by the flight itself, and the lack of family support in India, Shekhar is also concerned about attitudes in India to autistic people and those with mental distress, and the lack of services to support autistic people and treat Gopul’s mental ill-health.

He said: “The social acceptance is not there. If he goes out by himself maybe some people could throw stones at him and kill him.”

Shekhar said there was a “social taboo” in India about mental health which would prevent Gopul being accepted.

He also pointed out that there is a global average of 3.96 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, whereas in India this figure is just 0.301.

He said: “Gopul will neither feel safe nor get the same level of services as he is getting in the UK.

“We are really, really worried. It is a dire situation. It is a risk to his life.”

A tribunal ruled last February that the Anands would have to leave the UK, and they were refused permission to appeal in September.

Shekhar then approached Gopul’s doctors for a medical review and they concluded that he was not well enough to travel.

The family’s solicitor told the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) service in a letter in November that it had made “arbitrary and hollow statements” in response to the detailed and independent medical evidence provided by the family, and did not understand why UKVI could not consider this as evidence to justify discretionary leave to remain in the UK.

The letter added: “Our client and his disabled dependant are left in a limbo being crushed between medical opinion and the UKVI policy.”

The Home Office has now told the family that it will not reconsider its decision, despite the concerns over Gopul’s health, but that they can lodge a fresh application to seek discretionary leave to remain in the UK.

This new application will cost them about £10,000 in legal fees and costs. The family have already spent nearly £20,000 in applying for leave to remain in the UK, and say they have wasted two years waiting for a decision on their application.

Because of the government’s refusal to extend their visas, Shekhar’s wife Anima has been forced to turn down a job offer.

His other son, Atul, who has been paying international rate fees for the last three years, has had to interrupt his computer science degree at the University of Bath and will need to return to India and then apply for a student visa so he can continue his studies.

Autistic UK, which is run and controlled by autistic people and has supported the campaign to persuade the government to change its position, said the Home Office appeared to consider “invisible” impairments such as autism and mental distress as “ineligible” in deciding whether there should be a medical exemption in such cases, which “is plainly discrimination”.

Errol Kerr said: “The lack of consideration the Home Office have for the situation Gopul is in is horrifying.

“However, it is not an isolated one. Instead it is indicative of a wider attitude towards disabled people and immigrants held by the Home Office itself.

“Whether this is due to wilful ignorance or a lack of understanding matters little – Autistic UK are deeply hurt that the very real needs of a multiply disabled individual are being ignored and we feel we have no choice than to stand with Gopul and his family, and show our support to those whose lives are similarly undermined.”

The Anand family have been supported by their MP, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds, who has called on the Home Office to re-open the case because of the new medical evidence that has emerged since the tribunal decision.

They have also launched an online petition in the hope of putting further pressure on the Home Office to reconsider its decision.

Shekhar said: “We are just asking for the Home Office to give us some more time, maybe six or eight months or a year.

“The moment the doctors say he is fit for travel, we will be able to take him back to Delhi.”

A series of Home Office spokespeople repeatedly promised that the department would release a statement about the case, but it had not done so by noon today (Thursday).

10 January 2019

 

 

ROFA lays out plans to make the right to independent living a reality

Campaigning disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have set out their demands for a new national independent living service that would eliminate the postcode lottery in support, and finally make the right to independent living a reality.

The Independent Living for the Future document has been developed over the last 14 months under the banner of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), whose members include Disabled People Against Cuts, Inclusion London, People First (Self Advocacy), Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, The Alliance for Inclusive Education and Shaping Our Lives.

ROFA will now seek support for the document from its members, political parties, disabled people, DPOs and other organisations.

Independent Living for the Future is based on principles laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Article 19 of the convention describes how countries signed up to the convention – like the UK – must recognise the right of all disabled people “to live in the community, with choices equal to others”.

The new document describes how the rights in article 19 could be upheld through a new national independent living service, which would build on “what was most successful” about the former Independent Living Fund.

The new service would be “co-created between government and disabled people, funded through general taxation, managed by central government, led by disabled people, and delivered locally in co-production with disabled people”, says the document.

It would be free, non-means-tested and “provided on the basis of need, not profit”.

There would also be funding for DPOs to deliver local services, ensuring a range of options to support disabled people to live in the community and exercise choice and control over their support.

Priorities would include setting up a new independent living taskforce, led by disabled people, to develop plans for the service; and agreeing how to introduce a legal right to independent living, including an independent living bill of rights.

There would also be a need, says the new document, to educate the public about the benefits of investing in independent living support for disabled people.

The document also calls for the government’s Office for Disability Issues to be moved out of the Department for Work and Pensions and placed within either the Cabinet Office or the Government Equalities Office.

And it says there should be a strategy for investment in local user-led services alongside the closure of institutionalised, segregated settings including long-stay hospitals and assessment and treatment units.

The document points out that government austerity cuts have had “serious adverse impacts” on the rights contained in article 19, with the social care and mental health systems in crisis and disabled people’s rights being taken “dramatically backwards”.

It says that grassroots campaigning by disabled people since 2010 has focused heavily on the right to independent living, partly because activists are so proud of the independent living movement and its achievements.

It adds: “At a time when discrimination continues to exist legally, structurally and within many parts of society, daily living conditions are deteriorating and the odds against us seem overwhelming, it is enormously important to be able to draw on a source of pride that sits at the core of our shared identity.”

The ideas behind the document began to be discussed several years ago with disabled activists involved in the campaign set up in 2011 to stop the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund.

More recently, there have been discussions at the National Disabled People’s Summit in November 2017, the Independent Living Campaign Conference later that month, and a ROFA round table event last May.

10 January 2019

 

 

Motability set to spend millions more on grants for adapted vehicles

The Motability car scheme is set to increase substantially the number of grants it makes to disabled people with high support needs that allow them to lease an adapted vehicle, MPs have been told.

The move would be a success for disabled campaigners who have long called for Motability to use more of its substantial resources to fund expensive, heavily-adapted vehicles for disabled people who would otherwise be unable to engage in their community.

Lord Sterling, the co-founder of the scheme and chair of the Motability charity, made the pledge to increase the number of grants during a joint evidence session held yesterday (Wednesday) by the Commons Treasury and work and pensions committees.

The committees are holding a fresh inquiry, following a critical report last month by the National Audit Office (NAO) which raised significant concerns about Motability Operations, the company which runs the scheme on behalf of the charity*.

Only disabled people receiving the higher mobility rates of disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP) – or similar payments for former members of the armed services – are eligible to join the scheme.

The evidence session saw MPs raise concerns about the level of financial reserves held by Motability Operations, high rates of executive pay at the company, and a lack of transparency by its chair, Neil Johnson, as well as the “cosy” relationship between the charity and the company.

Another key issue was what the charity would do with £400 million in donations handed to it by Motability Operations, with the expectation of a further and continuing £100 million a year, as a result of profits that were more than £1 billion higher than forecasted between 2007-08 and 2016-17.

Labour’s John Mann, a member of the Treasury committee, said there was a disabled young woman who lived in a rural area of his Bassetlaw constituency and had been refused a grant for an adapted vehicle which she needed to drive to her first job.

He questioned why such grants were being rejected when Motability Operations held £2.62 billion in reserves in March 2018 and was paying its executives such large salaries and bonuses (in 2016-17, the company’s chief executive Mike Betts received a total financial package of £1.7 million).

Lord Sterling told the MPs that the charity knew there was unfulfilled demand for grants to adapt vehicles for disabled people with high support needs.

He said: “We know there’s a much bigger demand… we want to do many more of these cars for the more severely disabled.”

But he admitted that the charity did not yet have a long-term strategy for spending the new funds donated by Motability Operations, although he said the money would all be spent “over a period”.

Paul Atkinson, the charity’s new chief executive, said the cost of a wheelchair-accessible vehicle can be up to £60,000, with the charity currently making £23 million in grants every year for about 8,500 people to lease adapted vehicles [many of these grants are for less expensive wheelchair-accessible vehicles].

He said: “What this donation will allow us to do for an awful long time into the future… is increase the number of people who are able to receive those grants.”

He was also asked whether some of the new money could be spent on allowing disabled people to keep their Motability vehicles until the end of their three-year lease period if they lose entitlement to PIP or DLA during that time, as tens of thousands have done since the introduction of PIP by the coalition government in 2013.

Although Atkinson did not appear to answer this question, he did say that the charity already considered such requests on a case-by-case basis.

He said the charity was about to launch an extensive consultation process to ask how it should spend the extra funds donated by Motability Operations; there will also be a review of the level of reserves being kept by the company.

The session saw representatives of both Motability Operations and the charity answering critical questions from MPs on the two committees.

While praising the way the scheme was run and the service it provided to disabled people, Frank Field, the Labour chair of the work and pensions committee, questioned whether it was “value for money” and whether it could be provided for lower payments for disabled customers.

Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, said this was possible, but he added: “We are talking about a success. And it’s very seductive to start picking a success to pieces.”

He said it was “reasonable” to challenge Motability Operations to reduce the “substantial” level of “over-profits” and “deliver a leaner operation”.

And he said the committees were right to be concerned about the levels of executive pay at the company.

He also said the government needed to take a “much more active part in shaping the future” of Motability Operations and then “guiding that future forward”, while there was a need for a “much more muscular” model of governing the company.

He said: “These issues aren’t going to go away without significant change in the way this is operating. It’s valuable, it’s a success, but there does need to be change.”

In response to one MP, Lord Stirling was forced to admit that there were currently no black and minority ethnic governors on the charity’s board, and only one woman.

Nicky Morgan, the Tory chair of the Treasury committee, also asked why the charity had not once since 2013 sent one of its governors to attend the Motability Operations committee that is responsible for setting levels of executive pay, even though the charity had sent letters expressing concern about the issue in both 2012 and 2016.

She said: “The difficulty is that everything I’m hearing so far is there has been a very long-term cosy relationship between the charity and the company.

“I think over the years you have done amazing work, but you have forgotten this is an arms-length relationship.”

Lord Sterling told her: “With hindsight, maybe one should have made sure someone should have attended it.”

MPs also asked about the company’s earlier failure to disclose nearly £2million in bonuses that were due to be paid to Betts by 2022.

Mann, a long-standing critic of Motability Operations, accused Neil Johnson, chair of the company, of hiding the full value of the incentive scheme.

He said: “You’re a monopoly underpinned by the taxpayer and I’m asking a simple question: why were you hiding that amount of money?”

The Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, another Treasury committee member, said Johnson’s evidence had been “evasive” and that there had been “a lack of openness, a lack of transparency, a lot of defensiveness”.

He suggested that, even if Motability Operations had not breached the “letter” of the Companies Act over details of the incentive scheme, it had breached it in “spirit”, and added: “‘The spirit matters too. You’re all City figures.

“The spirit matters as much as the letter. Being evasive and that kind of behaviour is not right.”

Johnson insisted that there was “no intention to cover [up] anything” and that Motability Operations had acted in line with best practice, but that it recognised that “there could be more openness” and had now taken steps to ensure that happened.

Asked about the level of reserves, Johnson said: “This is not a leasing company like any other leasing company.

“If another leasing company has insufficient reserves and goes to the wall then its customers can go somewhere else. Our customers can’t. That’s why we need to have sufficient reserves in place.”

But Field said the government and MPs would never allow it to fail.

*The Motability charity is one of Disability News Service’s subscribers

10 January 2019

 

 

Rudd has not delayed roll out of universal credit, DWP confirms

The roll out of the government’s much-criticised universal credit benefit system has not been delayed and will proceed as planned, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has confirmed.

Reports at the weekend suggested that new work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd had decided on a significant overhaul and planned to delay the process of moving about three million claimants of existing “legacy” benefits, including hundreds of thousands of people on employment and support allowance (ESA), onto universal credit.

Some commentators and politicians subsequently praised Rudd for listening to critics of the new regime, which has been blamed for driving many claimants into poverty.

But DWP confirmed this week that the timetable had not changed, and that the “managed migration” of those on legacy benefits like ESA and income support onto universal credit would begin in July with a small pilot programme of about 10,000 claimants, as previously announced.

Next year, DWP will begin migrating the remaining three million of those on legacy benefits, with the aim of completing the roll out by the end of 2023.

All that has changed is that, instead of seeking parliamentary approval for regulations that would allow the entire managed migration process to be given the go-ahead, ministers will first ask MPs to approve only regulations covering the pilot scheme.

They will then come back to parliament at a later stage for approval of regulations covering the rest of the managed migration process.

A DWP spokesperson told Disability News Service this week: “There is no change to the roll out timetable.

“We will begin migration this year with a maximum of 10,000 people to make sure the system is working well for claimants and to make any necessary adaptions as we go.

“We are clear this will have no impact on our timelines for universal credit to be fully rolled out by 2023.”

Rudd told MPs this week during the first work and pensions questions of 2019 that she was still considering when to ask MPs to vote on the main migration of the three million claimants.

She also confirmed that there were already 1.4 million people on universal credit, with another 1.6 million expected to move on to it during the next 12 months as part of so-called “natural migration”, through new claims by people not already on legacy benefits and from those moved onto universal credit because of a change in their circumstances, such as moving to a new home.

She said she would take on board a suggestion from Labour MP Ruth George that DWP should publish a “conclusive list of all the reasons for people having a change of circumstances and being moved on to universal credit”.

DNS has been trying since last January, through freedom of information requests, to persuade DWP to release such a list, and other information about the universal credit reforms.

Later in work and pensions questions, the shadow minister for disabled people, Labour’s Marsha de Cordova, was scathing about DWP’s decision to launch a seventh review of disabled people who had been wrongly denied social security payments, as revealed by DNS last week.

She said it was “yet another example of the devastating impact of the chaotic shambles at the heart of the DWP”.

And she asked Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, if the latest review was “the result of institutional indifference to the suffering of disabled people” or simply “the result of a department in utter chaos”.

Newton told de Cordova that she would “not even dignify those comments by repeating the allegations”.

She said: “We are utterly determined to make sure we have a benefits system that is compassionate, fair and fit for purpose.

“We are proceeding at pace to review the PIP claimant cases to make sure that people get all the benefits to which they are entitled.”

But Newton was also told, by fellow Tory MP Maria Caulfield, of a constituent with cystic fibrosis who has “lung function of less than 30 per cent” but has lost his entitlement to personal independence payment and now faces a 47-week wait for a tribunal to hear his appeal.

Newton told her: “Many more people are benefiting from PIP than they were under the legacy system, but one mistake is one too many and I will of course work with her.”

10 January 2019

 

 

Nine journeys in one day expose ‘sham’ of National Express ‘accessible’ coaches

A disabled campaigner who took nine journeys on the same day to check the accessibility of the services provided by the UK’s largest coach operator experienced signifcant problems on all but one of them.

Wheelchair-user Doug Paulley had booked assistance in advance for services between Leeds and Bradford provided by National Express.

But all but one of last week’s nine journeys threw up serious problems, with malfunctioning lifts, drivers who did not know how to deal with the equipment, or staff failing to clamp Paulley’s wheelchair in place correctly and safely.

He caught all the day’s journeys on video and edited them into a 20-minute package of the worst moments.

The first journey saw him stuck in mid-air on the lift that was loading him and his wheelchair into the coach, with staff making repeated attempts to make the equipment work, and the equipment malfunctioning again at the end of the trip.

There were problems with the seatbelt on the second journey, but the third journey was problem-free.

After this third trip, he began taking pictures of the way his chair was being clamped, and found that not once on the remaining journeys was he restrained safely and correctly.

The fourth trip again saw the lift jamming, while the driver on the fifth journey had to repeatedly enter and reverse out of the bay because the ramp would not open properly.

When the ramp finally opened, the lift jammed.

On the sixth journey, the wheelchair was not clamped correctly, and on the seventh a member of staff reported problems with the “ratchets” that attach the wheelchair to the floor of the coach.

The next coach driver had problems clamping the wheelchair to the coach, while Paulley’s final journey saw the coach parked so close to the railings that it was difficult for him to access the ramp, while his wheelchair was again not clamped safely.

Last year, an investigation by Paulley showed that National Express was ignoring access laws by refusing to allow wheelchair-users to travel on its services on the same day they bought tickets.

Any coaches that have been adapted to be compliant with Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations – as all of National Express’s have – must provide a wheelchair space and make that space available to wheelchair-users.

All companies operating scheduled services must ensure they are accessible by 1 January 2020, so other companies have less than a year to meet the necessary standards.

This time, Paulley booked his coach tickets in advance, and managed to make nine trips between Leeds and Bradford in different coaches in one day.

And he says his experiment shows that even those companies, like National Express, that are already running “wheelchair-accessible” services are actually offering an “unusable” system.

This means wheelchair-users do not even try to use the service, he said, so the equipment is never used.

Paulley said: “So when somebody like me comes along and bucks the trend by having the audacity to dare to attempt to use this system which everybody else takes for granted, it all falls apart spectacularly.

“The sham is exposed as being a tick-box exercise of going through the motions of meeting the legislation, but nobody actually checks that it works and it isn’t actually usable.

“Which is utterly shameful.”

Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All (TfA), the user-led organisation that campaigns on accessible transport in London, said Paulley’s experiences were “very disturbing and upsetting for Doug” but not a surprise to TfA.

He said: “Watching this experience is enough to put any disabled people off travelling by coach. This is unacceptable.

“Clearly the equipment doesn’t work as it should and significantly the staff training wasn’t up to scratch even though the operator provided more support than would usually be available.

“With rising train fares coach travel is seen by many as a more affordable alternative but based on this experience disabled people will be seriously considering whether this is a realistic or sensible alternative for them.”

A National Express spokesperson refused to say if the company was concerned about what it had seen in Paulley’s video.

But she said in a statement: “We take our commitment to accessible travel very seriously and always endeavour to facilitate travel on our coaches for any passengers requiring assistance, which includes wheelchair users.

“Customer feedback is key to our continual learning and informing any business decisions regarding our policy and procedures.

“We are in direct discussions with Mr Paulley to respond in detail regarding his travel with us on 30 December 2018.”

10 January 2019

 

 

Disabled designer wins $500,000 to develop first intelligent manual wheelchair

A disabled entrepreneur and product designer is set to develop a revolutionary prototype of the world’s first “intelligent” manual wheelchair, after winning half a million dollars in funding through a global competition.

Andrew Slorance, whose start-up company Phoenix Instinct is based in Forres, Moray, in the north of Scotland, was this week announced as one of five finalists in the worldwide Mobility Unlimited Challenge (MUC).

Slorance hopes to produce something that has “never been done before”: an ultra-lightweight wheelchair that uses artificial intelligence to create an “intelligent” centre of gravity, providing a chair that is both stable and easy to self-propel.

The wheelchair will also have intelligent, electronic braking so the user will not need to grab the tyres to slow down on steep slopes.

Slorance told Disability News Service (DNS) this week: “I genuinely think it would be a revolution of the wheelchair.

“It’s a huge responsibility to wheelchair-users because the wheelchair has stayed as it has been for the last five years with very little innovation.

“The wheelchair companies themselves, it doesn’t look like they are going to do anything like this. They’re going to carry on dishing out the same stuff.

“And here we have the chance to move the posts and show them and wheelchair-users the wheelchair can be a lot better.”

The problem with lightweight wheelchairs, he says, is that even if they are easy to lift, the amount of weight on the small front wheels can make them difficult to push because the centre of gravity is too far forward.

But if you move the centre of gravity – the axle position – further back it becomes “very tippy and prone to falling backwards”.

What he will do with his new wheelchair – known currently as the Phoenix AI – is to use artificial intelligence and sensors that allow the wheelchair to adjust its own centre of gravity according to what the wheelchair-user is doing.

“So it will always be very light to push because all of the weight will be going through the back wheels,” he says, “but it will be smart enough to keep the wheelchair stable, so any time the wheelchair looks like it may be prone to falling backwards, the system will kick in and correct it so that can’t happen.”

This, says Slorance, has never been done before.

The centre of gravity is the number one cause of accidents for wheelchair-users, he says, while the problems linked to the need to make the chair stable make it harder to push, create a lot of vibrations through the front wheels, and cause muscle spasms and other discomfort.

The new chair will also have intelligent, electronic braking, so it will automatically slow down to a pre-programmed speed when on a slope.

“Wheelchairs don’t have brakes,” he says. “They have parking brakes, so when you get in and out of a wheelchair you can keep it in one place, but when you’re going down a steep slope in rain you’ve just got your hands.

“Imagine saying to a cyclist, ‘Here’s your new bike, it doesn’t have any brakes, just grab hold of the tyre if you want to slow down.’”

All five of the MUC finalists will receive $500,000 to develop prototypes of their designs, with one of them set to receive another $1,000,000 when the winner of the challenge is announced in Tokyo in September 2020.

The Toyota Mobility Foundation launched the $4 million global competition in 2017 in partnership with the UK charity Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, with the aim of improving the mobility and independence of millions of people with lower-limb paralysis.‏

Four of the finalists, including Slorance and Phoenix Instinct, have already benefited from $50,000 MUC grants to help them develop their ideas.

Now he and the other four finalists have 18 months to produce a prototype to show to the judges.

He says he and his team have a “massive task” ahead of them.

They have proved that they can electronically adjust the centre of gravity through censors, so when the user moves their body position around on the wheelchair the centre of gravity will adjust itself – in a similar way that the Segway device keeps itself upright – but they still need to create an ultra-light wheelchair that remains “super-duper light” even after the electronics have been added.

He believes that such a product would be a revolutionary development of the wheelchair.

Slorance believes that his team should be able to get their wheelchair to market within three years.

If they do, he believes that smart wheelchairs will be commonplace within five years, just as mobile phones, fridges, and cars are increasingly becoming smart through their use of artificial intelligence.

Soon, he says, “people will be driving in driverless cars, they will be taking them home, the car will be telling the oven to turn itself on, while the fridge is ordering some shopping, but the wheelchair, the thing the person most needs more than anything else in life, will be this standard product that existed 35 years ago.

He says: “I don’t think it will stay like that. I think that making smart chairs is the natural progression and I think we are the people to get the ball rolling on that.”

Innovation in the wheelchair market has been slow so far, he says, partly because it is a niche market, but also because the companies that design wheelchairs are mechanical engineers, they are not electronic or software engineers and so do not have the expensive expertise they need at hand.

He believes this could change, if smart wheelchairs become the norm, and the big electronics and automotive companies join the market, ratcheting up the speed of innovation.

It could be, he says, “a very exciting time for people like myself as an innovator but also as a wheelchair-user”.

Slorance himself already has a strong track record of innovation in wheelchair design, after conceiving and designing the Carbon Black wheelchair, which is made almost entirely from carbon fibre.

He has wanted to design wheelchairs almost from the moment be broke his back when he was 14 and was presented by an occupational therapist with an “horrific” NHS wheelchair, and thought to himself: “Wheelchairs have to be better than this.”

He built a career in television, editing video for Channel 4 News and Sky News, but gave it up to design the wheelchair that would become the Carbon Black, driven by this belief that “wheelchairs could be better” and the feeling that he was “creatively starved” in journalism where the news is “here today and gone tomorrow”.

It was not quite as big a leap as it sounds, he says, because wheelchair-users have to problem-solve every day, but there was still a “long learning journey” ahead of him, on carbon fibre manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and finding the right people in computer-aided design “who would actually create the design that was in my head”.

The Carbon Black wheelchair that resulted from this journey was critically-acclaimed and was even exhibited at the Design Museum in 2012 after coming runner-up to the Olympic torch in the Designs of the Year competition.

But after he was forced out of his own company by investors he had brought on board – a “very tough thing to go through”, he says – he had to start all over again, which he did by starting up a new firm.

The name of his new company – Phoenix Instinct, which sells ultra-manoeuvrable luggage that can be towed by wheelchairs, which he designed himself after launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign – has a double-meaning.

He says: “Every wheelchair-user customer that we have at the moment has Phoenix Instinct – they have the ability to get up every day and overcome the adversity that’s tried so hard to beat them.

“But also for me, I have Phoenix Instinct as an entrepreneur, regardless of what happened to me at Carbon Black. Carbon Black is just part of my story.”

The other four MUC finalists – two from the US, one from Japan and one from Italy, whittled down from 80 entries spanning 28 countries – will also each benefit from $500,000 development funding over the next 18 months.

The Evowalk is ‏a smart, wearable leg sleeve that would help people with partial lower limb paralysis regain their mobility; the Moby is an integrated network of wheel-on electric devices that would allow users of manual wheelchairs the benefits of a powered chair through the equivalent of a cycle share scheme; the Qolo is a lightweight, mobile exoskeleton on wheels, which would allow users to sit or stand; and the Quix is a robotic, powered exoskeleton with motors at the hips, knees and ankles, which aims to offer someone with lower-limb paralysis “fast, stable, and agile upright mobility”. ‏

Ryan Klem‏, director of programs for Toyota Mobility Foundation, said: “These five finalists have shown real innovation driven by human-centered design.

“We think that the technology incorporated in these devices could change the lives of a huge number of people around the world, not just for people with lower-limb paralysis, but also those with a wider range of mobility needs.”

Charlotte Macken, of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, said: “Current personal mobility devices are often unable to fully meet the needs of users due to limitations affecting functionality and usability.

“Historically, the pace of innovation is slow, due to small and fragmented markets and difficulties in getting new technology funded by health-care systems and insurers.

“This can make the field unattractive to the very people who could help change the world.

“We hope that challenges like this can inspire innovation and are excited to see how the five finalists use this opportunity to develop their ideas further.”‏

Meanwhile, Slorance says he can see a time when smart wheelchairs are all part of a connected network and are able to communicate with each other.

This could mean, if he wanted to travel from Covent Garden to Hyde Park in London, that his wheelchair would be able to ask other wheelchairs in the network how it could do this in an accessible way, whether there were any slopes on the route, and what the road surface was like.

“My chair will be able to network with other wheelchairs that have done that journey,” he says, “and tell me exactly where I need to go, and what accessible places there are en route.

“I think there’s a whole new world that can open up with the smart technology in wheelchairs.”

He says this could eventually see wheelchair-users with an advantage over non-wheelchair-users, something that has already happened in athletics with competitors with running blades, where, he says, “someone with carbon fibre legs can actually have an advantage over someone running on natural legs”.

A couple of years ago, he was in his wheelchair on an Edinburgh street and his front wheel caught a paving slab that was sticking up.

“I fell flat on my face,” says Slorance. “I scarred my nose quite badly, I broke it. There was nothing I could do.

“I think as we move forward, we will see intelligent systems implemented in wheelchairs that would have detected that paving slab sticking up and would automatically turn the chair a different way or sounded some sort of alarm long before I would have known it was there.

“In that sense, unless you’re going to wear shoes that have sensors that tell you there’s a paving slab sticking up, then, yes, maybe the wheelchair-user might be at an advantage.”

10 January 2019

 

 

Company praised for ‘first accessible parking bay for charging electric vehicles’

Campaigners have welcomed the decision to install what is believed to be the country’s first accessible parking bay for disabled people who need to recharge their electric vehicles.

Only holders of blue parking badges who also need to recharge their electric vehicles will be allowed to use the space in the new NCP car park in Stanley Street, Salford.

The idea came following a suggestion from disabled campaigner Helen Dolphin, and Libbie Bilyard, co-founders of the People’s Parking scheme.

Dolphin, an independent mobility consultant and herself a disabled driver, came up with the idea when looking at how to make improvements to their car park accreditation scheme, which already judges services on their provision of electric charging points.

She said: “I am only too aware of the increasing growth of electric vehicles and although I don’t have an electric vehicle myself, I knew that as a disabled person I would struggle to get out of my car in a standard sized bay.

“I therefore wanted to encourage car park operators to consider the needs of electric vehicle owners who are disabled and I’m absolutely delighted that NCP have installed a dual bay in their new car park.”

The scheme aims to improve car parks by highlighting those with facilities for disabled people, parents, commuters, cyclists and motorcyclists, and for electric and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and those that can show they have good signage and pedestrian routes, are well-lit, clean and well-managed.

Sean Fenney, NCP’s head of operations for Manchester, said: “Normally we have to work within the limitations of the estate that we currently have, so when we have a new-build car park it’s always a great opportunity to be able to make the space really work for all our customers.

“We were really pleased to be able to add our first dual electric charging bay for our disabled customers, as we expect that to be a very real need in the near future.”

The Department for Transport (DfT) welcomed the move by NCP.

A DfT spokesperson said: “We welcome measures that support the use of electric vehicles and are committed to ensuring that everyone in our society enjoys the same opportunities to travel.

“Our Road to Zero strategy, combined with £1.5 billion of investment in ultra-low emission vehicles, sets out a clear path for Britain to be a world leader in the zero emission revolution.”

Motability currently offers three electric models to lease through the disabled people’s vehicle scheme, with 202 customers with electric vehicles at the end of December.

A Motability spokesperson said: “The Motability scheme is currently in discussions with a number of other manufacturers to be able to supply full battery electric vehicles on the scheme in the future.

“Motability supports initiatives, such as People’s Parking, in helping to improve facilities for disabled people.”

10 January 2019

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com