Maximus-owned Remploy slashes pay of disabled experts by half
The care watchdog has allowed a US outsourcing giant to slash the pay of disabled people by more than half when it takes over two contracts to manage service-users who work as expert advisers on care home and hospital inspections.
Two of the three new contracts to run the Experts by Experience (EbE) programme – in which people with experience of using care services take part in Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections – have been awarded to Remploy, which is now mostly owned by the discredited US company Maximus.
But even though the three new contracts are supposed to begin on 1 February, they have still not been signed, and CQC has admitted it “may take several more weeks for the negotiations to be complete and the contracts to be signed”.
Existing EbEs who have spoken to Disability News Service (DNS) are furious at how the watchdog has treated them.
CQC has described the EbE contract as its largest ever procurement process, but there are now question-marks over how it has run the exercise.
Remploy confirmed this week to existing EbEs that it will pay them just £8.25 per hour (or £9.40 in London), compared with current rates of more than £17 per hour.
Remploy will recruit, support and manage the involvement of Experts by Experience in CQC’s north, south and London regions, while the contract for the central region has been handed to a consortium run by the charity Choice Support, which is one of five providers currently running the programme across the country.
In its response to a freedom of information request submitted last month by DNS, CQC has refused to say which user-led organisations the two consortiums will be working with on the EbE contracts.
By noon today (14 January), CQC had failed to explain how the necessary training and Disclosure and Barring Service checks on new EbE recruits would be completed in time to start work on 1 February, or to comment on the lack of communication with EbE experts or the new lower pay rates.
One EbE expert said she was “furious” at how she had been treated by CQC and said she felt she had been left “high and dry”.
She said she believed CQC was breaching principles on public procurement, particularly those relating to the need for accountability, because of its failure to keep her and colleagues properly briefed on the procurement process.
She contrasted this with CQC’s repeated claims that it highly values the members of its EbE programme and places them at the heart of its national inspection programme.
She said: “We are being kept completely in the dark about what is happening.
“It’s a complete farce in regards to communication and contracting. How they can deliver the contract from 1 February is anyone’s guess.”
Another EbE expert was also critical of the lack of transparency, and said CQC had become an “impenetrable quango”.
He said: “Nobody is speaking up for us, nobody at all. [There is] a lack of accountability, a lack of any kind of transparency, a lack of any kind of meaningful consultation or engaging with experts themselves.
“I feel it is a mixture of absolute incompetence and arrogance. It doesn’t make you feel valued at all.”
He said he was also concerned at the prospect of working for a company mostly owned by Maximus, because of its reputation.
Every month, more than 500 experts are sent on CQC inspections across adult social care, primary care and hospitals, and by the end of 2016 that is set to double to 950 a month.
Currently, more than 50 per cent of inspections involve EbE, and CQC wants that to increase to up to 80 per cent in some areas of its work in the next two years.
A Remploy spokesman said: “Discussions are continuing with CQC and we have nothing to add to our previous statement to you.”
Remploy claimed last month that service-users were “at the heart of the programme”, that it was “confident” that it would be able to recruit enough experts to “successfully deliver the contract”, and that the “level of payments to the experts will be set through the implementation of the contract, in discussion with user-led partners”.
14 January 2016
Council’s ‘wicked’ care cuts are ‘like social cleansing’, say service-users
Disabled and older people have compared a council’s plans to cut £5 million from its adult social care budget to “social cleansing”, and have accused it of “treating people no better than animals in Longleat”.
The comments were included in The Voice of those Affected, a report by Healthwatch Merton into proposed cuts by Merton council in south-west London.
The report was commissioned by the council after heavy lobbying by campaigners, and was based on comments by 72 service-users and carers during a series of focus groups.
The report was released as more than 20 campaigners – many of them disabled people – protested outside the council’s offices before a committee meeting this week at which councillors discussed the proposed cuts.
The protesters had heard that members of the council’s ruling Labour group had already voted in secret – although not unanimously – not to increase council tax for 2016-17, or to take advantage of new powers allowing councils to increase council tax by two per cent a year to boost adult social care spending.
Six speakers, including Lyla Adwan-Kamara, chief executive of Merton Centre for Independent Living (MCIL), and two disabled people affected by the proposals, spoke to the council’s healthier communities and older people’s scrutiny panel about the report and the likely impact of the cuts.
Adwan-Kamara said afterwards that those speeches “brought to life what was in that report, what had been happening to them and even worse what was going to happen to them”.
Following those and other presentations and discussions, the panel rejected three proposed cuts – to care and support packages, to staffing, and to scrapping a respite service – and agreed to send them back to the council’s cabinet for “review and reconsideration”.
People who took part in the Healthwatch Merton focus groups said the cuts would damage their health, sever social connections, and affect every aspect of their lives, leaving some believing that life was no longer worth living.
Words and phrases used to describe the cuts included “disgusting”, “devastating”, “wickedness” and “survival of the fittest”.
One told a focus group: “It is like social cleansing, they are trying to get rid of the people they don’t need.”
One man in his 80s said – apparently quite seriously – that he would now have to “start practising to eat less from now on”, while another contributor said: “I will end up in my flat like a hermit, self-harming again.”
Another said: “I was placed in a care home. It feels like a prison. I pay £600 per week to live somewhere I hate and I don’t use any of the services.”
One focus group member said the council had become “less and less supportive”, and accused it of “withdrawing help and taking things back to Victorian times”, while another said: “I had to beg social services to take notice of me. What chance is there going to be for people that don’t have a voice like I did?”
The report calls for the council to commission a more detailed, independent evaluation of the impact of the cuts on disabled and older people, and concludes: “One of the key feelings voiced was a sense of betrayal and abandonment by Merton Council.
“People talked of being left behind, being left on the scrapheap, and not being treated equally.”
The report says there were people crying in nearly every one of the focus groups, and it warns that if the cuts go ahead, people will “potentially be making heat or eat type decisions as they may need to pay for their own care, or pay more for services that they need”.
After the scrutiny panel meeting, Adwan-Kamara told Disability News Service that it was the first time the council had “really listened to our members”, but that the £5 million in cuts was “still hanging over people’s heads”.
She said of the Healthwatch Merton report: “I had a fairly clear view of what people would say, because we have been hearing this through our casework.
“As a centre for independent living, we knew what the issues were, but to see those comments written down in black and white and made so explicit and clear was really emotional.”
She said the Labour group’s decision not to increase council tax was “unconscionable”.
She said: “They have that opportunity and they are refusing to take it. They have made a choice not to raise council tax, so they have made a choice not to support the most vulnerable people in Merton.”
A spokeswoman for Merton’s Labour group confirmed the scrutiny panel had asked the cabinet to look again at the three proposed cuts to adult social care, and said the budget would now be considered by the cabinet on 15 February, with a final decision taken by the full council on 2 March.
She said that the Labour group “intends to keep its promise to residents to freeze council tax” and would not take advantage of the two per cent increase option.
Cllr Stephen Alambritis, leader of the council, said in a statement: “I promised residents a four year council tax freeze and if there’s one thing you can say about me I keep my promises.
“I’m a business-man and I believe in running a business-like council, making what we do more efficient so we can continue to deliver the services people need the most.”
Cllr Mark Allison, the cabinet member for finance, added: “The government have cut council funding by more than 40 per cent but in Merton we have done our best to protect adult social care services by ensuring it gets a lower share of the cuts than other departments, and by adding a further £12 million to its budget.
“As a result we have managed to keep the amount we spend on adult social care virtually the same since 2010.”
14 January 2016
Disabled people are falling through holes in local welfare safety net, warn MPs
A committee of MPs has called on the government to stop local authorities discriminating against disabled people who need financial help following the introduction of the “bedroom tax”.
The work and pensions select committee’s report on the local welfare safety net – which focuses on England – warns that many councils are failing to follow government guidance when deciding whether disabled people should be awarded discretionary housing payments (DHPs).
The committee has been told that three-quarters of councils count disability living allowance (DLA) and personal independence payment (PIP) as part of a claimant’s income when deciding on their eligibility for DHPs, when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the courts have said this should not happen.
But when, during its inquiry, the committee asked the government’s welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, if he would consider putting its DHP guidance on a statutory footing, he told the MPs that he saw “no particular benefit” in doing so.
The committee’s report is now urging him to think again.
It also wants him to strengthen the DHP guidance to stop councils forcing disabled people in adapted properties who have been hit by the bedroom tax policy to prove they have tried to move to cheaper accommodation.
The spare room subsidy removal (SRSR) policy – better-known as the bedroom tax – was introduced by the coalition in April 2013, and means that tenants in social housing are punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes, with about two-thirds of those affected disabled people.
Many disabled people need extra rooms for impairment-related reasons, or find it impossible to move to smaller accommodation because of the shortage of accessible, affordable properties.
The committee has also written to Lord Freud – alongside its report – to ask him to ensure that households where parents are caring full-time for their adult disabled children are not affected by the government’s benefit cap.
Disabled people who receive DLA, PIP or the support group element of employment and support allowance are exempt from the cap, which in April will see the total benefits a couple can receive reduced from £26,000 a year to £20,000, or £23,000 for those in London.
But if a disabled child receiving full-time family care reaches adulthood and makes a claim for disability benefits in their own right, they are then considered a separate “household”, so their carer’s exemption from the cap no longer applies.
The report details a visit by the committee to north London, in which a single woman who cares full-time for her 23-year-old son, who has received the higher rate of the DLA care component since the age of seven, had become subject to the benefit cap when he reached adulthood, leaving her with a rent shortfall of £90 per week.
She was given a short-term DHP, but the council refused to extend it – even though she had been asking to be rehoused for 10 years – leaving her only option finding a job and placing her son in care.
The letter, from the committee’s chair, Labour MP Frank Field, calls on Lord Freud to give “urgent thought” to the issue.
The report also says Lord Freud previously failed to provide figures requested by the committee to show how many families were in such a situation.
The Conservative MP John Glen, a member of the committee, said it was “clear that the benefit cap was not intended to apply to the carers of adult disabled children”.
He called on the minister to clarify the DHP guidance or “explain how else these cases can be treated compassionately by a policy that was never intended to affect them”.
The report also calls on the government to commission research into the characteristics of people affected by the benefit cap and the bedroom tax who have little option but to stay in their current homes because they cannot work or earn more, or move to a cheaper home.
As well as DHPs, the committee’s report examines local council tax support, introduced in April 2013 to replace council tax benefit; and local welfare assistance schemes, also introduced in April 2013, which replaced DWP crisis loans and community care grants.
The report calls for much better coordination of the local and national benefits systems to fill gaps in the welfare safety net and prevent severe hardship and destitution, and avoid leaving people “confused about where to turn in a crisis”.
It says the government’s localisation policies, at a time of budgetary pressures and welfare reform, have led to concerns about a “postcode lottery” in the coverage and adequacy of the safety net, particularly in England.
A DWP spokesman said: “Our vital welfare reforms are restoring fairness to the system and under universal credit we are working closely with local authorities, charities and landlords to ensure people receive the support they need.
“We know that there are some people who need extra support transitioning to our reforms, which is why we provided local authorities with over £500 million in the last parliament and will provide a further £870 million in this one.
“It is right that we have given local councils more control because they understand best their local area’s needs.”
He said DWP had published an evaluation of the spare room subsidy removal, which “included an assessment of the impact of the policy on disabled people”.
DWP said it had issued “clear guidance” to councils on using DHPs, which highlights “that these can be used in both the long and short term and that the most vulnerable should be prioritised, including disabled people”.
He said that 98 per cent of carers were not affected by the benefit cap.
The spokesman said: “Lord Freud will respond directly to Frank Field in due course.”
By noon today (14 January), he had not commented on whether the DHP guidance would be given statutory status.
Meanwhile, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded that the future of local welfare assistance schemes “appears uncertain”.
The NAO said: “With reducing resources and competing pressures, many councils say they cannot afford to continue offering this support without specific government funding.
“The NAO finds that some councils have already stopped or reduced the provision they introduced in April 2013.”
Amyas Morse, head of NAO, said: “Councils provide discretionary local welfare support, but increasing numbers are stopping doing so, and less is being spent overall now than in 2013.
“The consequences of creating this gap in provision are not understood, either in terms of impact on vulnerable people or of creating potentially costly additional care or medical needs in the longer term.”
14 January 2016
Disabled MP’s jobs warning to government: ‘Do not under-estimate prejudice’
A disabled Conservative MP has warned the government not to underestimate the difficulty of achieving its aim of halving the disability employment gap, because of the extent of “prejudice” faced by disabled people.
Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, told a parliamentary debate on access to jobs for disabled people that he had been shocked to discover the extent of prejudice in society when he left school and started seeking work.
He said: “No one should underestimate the courage, ambition and confidence that young [disabled] people need to try to seek work.
“A young person in their teens is probably still at the family home and in the school environment that they have always been in. To a certain extent, they are in a safe environment.
“It is not until one gets out there and tries to find a job that one really discovers the existence of prejudice against the disabled in society.
“That can be quite a shock to many young people – it certainly came as a shock to me.
“I was not expecting to encounter it when making job applications, yet I rapidly ran into it and I do not consider myself to have a particularly severe form of cerebral palsy at all.”
Maynard told MPs that one of the proudest moments of his life was to see in the 2015 Conservative election manifesto a commitment to halve the disability employment gap, the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in work.
He said: “I am equally proud of the fact that, over the past two years, we have got 340,000 more disabled people into employment.”
But he warned that the “difficulty will come when those with much more complex needs that are more costly to address come into play in terms of meeting the goal”.
Maynard said that young disabled people needed encouragement in seeking work.
He said: “They do not aspire to a lifetime of supported employment and their families do not aspire to that on their behalf, either.
“They want full equality in the workplace and we must do all we can to make that happen.
“I do not doubt that it is a very ambitious target. We are making progress now, but there is no guarantee that that will continue for ever.”
Maynard called on the government to do more to ensure its Access to Work employment programme was available to job-seekers while they were still looking for work.
Maynard also called on the government to merge Access to Work and the disabled students’ allowance into a single scheme.
He said that both schemes were about “allowing people to participate in their place of work, be that a college, university or workplace”.
He said: “I still struggle to understand why they are managed by two different departments on different sets of procedures and with different criteria.”
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, was critical of the government for creating a “perverse position” in which it was “making cuts to support for disabled people before we have work for disabled people to get into and support for employers”.
She said that 3.7 million disabled people had been affected by £23.8 billion in cuts since 2010, while the new welfare reform and work bill would see 500,000 disabled people affected by another £640 million in cuts to new claimants of the employment and support allowance placed in the work-related activity group, while there had been £3.6 billion in cuts to social care since 2010.
The Labour MP Mike Kane told the debate that he and fellow Manchester MP Kate Green – a former shadow minister for disabled people – had organised an event under the government’s Disability Confident campaign umbrella, after being asked to do so by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The event in south Manchester attracted 80 employers, but Kane said it relied “extraordinarily heavily on the contacts of the local MPs” and placed “an inordinate strain” on their staff.
He said DWP had wanted the MPs to lead the event, but he criticised the “lack of a joined-up approach between various parts of the DWP and the agencies that it brought in to help”.
Kane also said he found “quite frustrating” DWP’s failure to follow up the event to find out how the companies implemented the good practice they had learned, and how many disabled people secured pre-employment and employment opportunities.
He called for DWP funding to ensure such information was produced after future events, and said: “I would like to run a similar event in the next year or two, but until I get substantive data about what we were able to achieve with the first events, that will be quite difficult.”
Dr Eilidh Whiteford, who leads for SNP on social justice and welfare in Westminster, said MPs needed to be “honest” with themselves about the extent of the “disadvantage affecting disabled people in the labour market”.
She backed a Disability Rights UK proposal to force businesses above a certain size to monitor and publish data on the number of disabled people they employ.
Whiteford said this would be “a proportionate and effective way to improve access to work and would possibly help to tackle the direct and indirect discrimination that too many people who are disabled experience in the workplace”.
Labour MP Ian Lucas, who secured the debate, raised the case of a disabled constituent, Margaret Foster, who had not worked since a government programme led in 2012 to the closure of the Remploy factory where she worked in Wrexham.
He said: “Many more people who were made redundant by the government were told that they would be able to go into mainstream employment, but have not been able to do so.”
His fellow Labour MP Ian Lavery, said more than two-thirds of his constituents in Wansbeck, Northumberland, who previously worked at Remploy had not worked since their factory closed.
Responding to points raised in the debate, Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said the government hoped to be spending about £123 million a year on Access to Work by 2020 – believed to be the first time he has mentioned such a figure publicly – compared to about £100 million presently, supporting an extra 25,000 people a year.
Last month, DWP told Disability News Service that it hoped the total number of disabled people helped by the scheme every year would increase from about 35,000 to about 60,000 by 2021, but that there was no “monetary figure” attached to that aim.
Tomlinson told MPs he was “disappointed to hear some of the negatives” about Disability Confident, and hoped to discuss them further, and said he agreed there needed to be measureable outcomes for such events.
And he said the government’s aim in closing the Remploy factories had been to “focus support on individuals” and “away from specific workplaces or facilities such as Remploy in order to significantly increase the number of people who could be supported to access the labour market”.
He said it had cost about £22,500 a year to support each disabled person working in a Remploy factory, and that all disabled Remploy staff affected by the closure of the factories had been offered “tailored support” for up to 18 months afterwards.
Figures from August 2015 showed more than 1,500 former disabled Remploy employees had received such support, while 867 were in work, he said.
14 January 2016
Network Rail is ‘leading industry on access by following Olympic path’
The public body responsible for 18 of Britain’s biggest rail stations is following the lead of the Olympic Delivery Authority and putting disabled people at the heart of its design process, according to its access and inclusion manager.
Margaret Hickish – who was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours, and is herself a wheelchair-user – said Network Rail hoped to “lead the way” for the railway industry on improving access and inclusion.
One of the ways it hopes to do that, she has told Disability News Service, is by following the lead of the much-praised Olympic Delivery Authority, for which she was accessibility manager.
Among the steps she has taken since starting to work with Network Rail three years ago is to set up a built environment accessibility panel (BEAP), mostly made up of disabled people, to advise on access issues.
Network Rail has also launched an inclusive design strategy and is about to implement new standards that reflect inclusive design principles, not just for improvement work on the big stations, but also for its huge estate of depots, offices and training centres across the UK.
She said: “We have changed a lot about the way Network Rail looks at inclusive design.
“More than anything else, what we are talking about is putting people at the heart of the design process.
“That is basically the human condition: throughout everyone’s life from birth through to death, and everything that might happen in between.”
Network Rail is already reaping the benefits of setting up BEAP, she said.
Towards the end of last year, it opened a new southern entrance at Leeds station, which was “designed from the outset to be as accessible as possible” and was one of the first projects to involve BEAP.
She said: “The team there found the support of our external stakeholders really useful, because they were actually pointing out things, elements that could be done perhaps that bit better… using people’s experiences and sharing those with the project team as early as possible to allow them to see where we can take those opportunities and do something different.”
The experience demonstrates, she said, that projects affecting disabled people work better if you involve them right from the start.
Hickish said: “That is something we have been emphasising over and over again.”
Many Network Rail designers previously only came across input from disabled people at public meetings, when designs were at a late stage and materials had already been ordered.
Hickish said: “This means that the ability to make change is quite limited and they are met with people who can be quite angry, whereas what they actually get when they are consulting [BEAP] is a group of people who want to achieve something better, who are looking for a way of being really collaborative, and who are willing to explore what might be possible.”
She said the changes made by Network Rail since she started three years ago had been “quite inspirational”.
In the past, the rail industry has been driven by regulation because of safety issues but, she said, “people now are starting to realise they can do that bit more, they can do things that don’t just meet regulations, but actually deliver something that makes the railway fit for the future”.
She pointed to examples such as the newly-refurbished Birmingham New Street station, which now has the first dog spending area in a British station, which means assistance dogs “now have a loo and a place to get a drink on what is a major interchange”.
“There’s never been a requirement [to have a dog spending area]. It’s not in the building regulations, it’s not in any regulations. We have done something different and we have them planned elsewhere.”
Network Rail has also installed Changing Places toilets – accessible toilets with extra features and more space – in some stations, as well as introducing larger and more accessible lifts, and refurbished accessible toilets.
The benefits of inclusive design are often far-reaching, particularly to an industry that needs to be obsessed with safety, she said.
If you make places accessible, people will behave more safely, said Hickish. “People will hold a handrail if it’s provided, they will use a lift if they have luggage, rather than going up an escalator, which is an area where accidents [often] happen as people let go of their luggage.
“If you have good quality lighting which works for disabled people, people also feel safer, but you can actually use that lighting to see if someone is thinking about doing something that you wouldn’t want them to do on a station.
“There are lots of things that you do for disabled people that have this wonderful by-product of making places safer.”
But Hickish is reluctant to say whether the 18 stations Network Rail is responsible for will ever become “fully accessible”, partly because many of the buildings were designed in the Victorian era.
“There will always be challenges in trying to do something that will be absolutely as we would wish it to be,” she said, “which is particularly true when we are dealing with historic fabric. But that doesn’t mean we should give up.”
She points to Edinburgh Waverley station as a particularly awkward example, “not least because it is down in a dip in the centre of a city and we are never going to be able to rebuild it because it is listed, and really, really heavily listed. Almost everything in the station is listed.”
She added: “If a station has been built at the top of a hill, we are not going to be able to knock down the hill.
“When you’re having to break into something that is historic fabric, inevitably it takes longer, but it doesn’t mean it is impossible.
“First of all, the important thing is to have the will, and then it’s about capturing people’s imaginations, because once people get engaged in this they start to realise there are more possibilities.”
Funding, she said, is always an issue, and Network Rail is currently planning access improvements for what it calls control period six, the five years from April 2019 to March 2024.
She said: “Some things, if we had additional funding, we might be able to do quicker, but the great thing about what we are doing now is we are just looking for those opportunities where we can make things better, and we have got real enthusiasm for that in Network Rail.”
Inevitably, she said, the 18 large stations run by Network Rail – such as Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Bristol Temple Meads and 10 London stations including London Bridge, Paddington and Euston – will be more accessible than the smaller stations run by the 20 train operating companies (TOCs), and many of the trains themselves.
The improvements made by the TOCs often depend on the long-term franchise agreements they sign with the Department for Transport (DfT) – and what access measures DfT includes in those agreements – with many of the agreements drawn up before Network Rail’s new inclusive design strategy was introduced.
Hickish said: “Prior to us publishing our inclusive design strategy, we did meet with all the TOCs, and we explained to them our direction of travel.
“They are all extremely supportive of that but quite clearly some of the franchises haven’t been written that would meet our inclusive design strategy, purely because one was done before the other.”
She said it was clear which TOCs were most enthusiastic about inclusive design, as they were the ones whose representatives always turned up to BEAP meetings, “because they want to know what is going on, but they also want to see where the best practice is”.
She added: “It was Network Rail’s intention when we were doing this to lead the way in the railways, so inevitably that is our goal, to be leading the way, to become an exemplar.
“Inevitably, if you want to be an exemplar you expect other people to follow, rather than be leading you.”
Trains themselves have a long life, she said, and so will not all become accessible overnight, although there is a deadline of 2020 by which all passenger rail vehicles must meet certain access standards, and new rolling stock is being introduced all the time.
As for her MBE, Hickish said she hoped it would mean the topic of inclusive design – which is still “pretty new” – might now come with a bit more “gravitas” attached to it.
“If it helps, if it means that someone listens a little bit earlier in the conversation,” she said, “then that would be fabulous.”
14 January 2016
Bradley Hemmings: ‘Equality, fraternity, and Liberty…’
After 20 years heading one of Europe’s leading outdoor arts festivals, and three years after helping to direct the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Bradley Hemmings could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.
But following an MBE in the latest New Year’s Honours, he is now set to direct the second Paralympic heritage flame ceremony at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, in advance of this summer’s Paralympics in Rio.
The flame will be created on 2 September, five days before the opening ceremony of the Rio Paralympics, and will be sent “virtually” to Brazil where it will merge with the Brazilian regional flames to form the flame used on the torch relay and then light the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.
He has been advising Aylesbury Vale council on what the heritage flame ceremony could look like – although he has not yet been confirmed as its director – with further details likely to be announced in March.
It would be interesting, Hemmings said, to mark the four-year journey from the London 2012 Paralympics and “imagine where [disability arts] might go next” – what that journey meant, what has changed during those four years, and what still needs to change.
Asked what needs to change in the world of disability arts, his answer underlines his priorities as a disabled artist, and a festival organiser: “More people, more creativity, more collaboration, more internationalism, and more recognition for artists and for this still very fragile part of the cultural sector.”
Hemmings is probably best-known as one of the two artistic directors – alongside Graeae’s Jenny Sealey – of the critically-praised opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics.
But he has been artistic director of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) in London since founding it in 1996, and has produced the mayor of London’s disability arts festival Liberty since it began in 2003.
He also directed the inaugural heritage flame ceremony in 2014, which celebrated the Sochi Winter Paralympics.
He is proud both of GDIF’s longevity, when many other festivals have failed to sustain their existence over such a long period, but also of the festival’s work with Deaf and disabled artists over the last 15 years.
He said: “What’s also been great is a number of those artists [he mentions Marc Brew, Graeae, Stopgap and Fittings] have through the building up of this kind of outdoor theatre sector gone on to enjoy touring and performances in other parts of the country.”
He has, he said, a “particular vision of fairness in outdoor theatre”, and added: “The whole point is that outdoor theatre is profoundly about something really democratic; and what is good about it and brilliant and moving about it is when you get the audience feeling that [the experience is featuring] the same people who live in the city, that it includes everybody.”
His own identity as a disabled person has played an important role, he said, in these ideas of “fairness and democracy and a sense of consideration about the way in which one likes to be communicated with or thought about or thought about imaginatively and with a degree of care”.
Although Hemmings believes that disability arts has moved on and developed in the last 15 years, with far greater recognition from the Arts Council, he said he did not want to be complacent.
He said: “There has been a wider conversation that has been possible about disability arts than there would have been perhaps 15 years ago when there was fantastic work being made but it was perhaps not being seen by nearly enough people.
“There is a sense that things have moved on, but there is a lot more to be done, big challenges.”
One of these is the challenge posed to many Deaf and disabled artists by the administration of the government’s Access to Work employment support scheme.
With festivals such as Liberty, artists’ access needs are often built into the funding, he said, but “in the wider life of the artists it’s a much wider problem”.
He said: “If you think about your working life in general and how you might be able to go about that and prepare and develop your work outside a moment in time, then that is obviously a considerable challenge.”
He is also keen to dispel the myth that just by putting on a free outdoor festival in an accessible location “you have made it accessible and that’s it, job done”.
He said: “There is a lot of work that needs to be done in engaging with audiences, which encourages people to feel that they are going to be safe and it will be an experience that they will come to and that they will enjoy it.”
Access is not just about viewing platforms, he said. “It’s [also] about ways in which front-of-house staff are ready and equipped to think creatively and positively about how they might communicate with people across a range of impairment groups.”
It is, he said, the “sense of welcome that is really important”, something that is often not done well with performances inside buildings.
He said that much of GDIF’s work was “highly visual”, but when there is dialogue, the festival has “brought in not just captioning but thought about ways in which we can integrate text into performances”.
GDIF always tries to ensure that at least one of its “large-scale spectaculars” has audio description, while it engages with the audience through volunteers and staff at festival meeting points so “it feels like a positive social experience rather than something that just stands in isolation”.
He praised the charity Attitude is Everything for enabling outdoor festivals to “think creatively” on access, and added: “It’s obviously not an exact science, but it’s very often a question of openness and imagination.
“I don’t think anything is ever perfect. That is what life is like: you’re always striving to do something new and make something better. That’s the challenge. I don’t think there is a nirvana.”
The Liberty disability arts festival has posed some different challenges, including the criticism drawn when it was forced to merge with National Paralympic Day from 2013.
Hemmings accepted that people had “a wide variety of views” on whether that merger was a good idea.
But he said: “From my point of view, there is a great deal of common ground and a great deal of opportunity in terms of the megaphone it provides through Channel 4 and so on and the way you can communicate with bigger audiences and tell different stories, so as somebody who makes theatre I’m interested by it.
“There are all sorts of ways of coming at it and I know as we go into 2016 – although I don’t know yet what the arrangements will be – [Liberty] will feel very different again, because a lot of the focus of the Paralympics will have moved to Rio rather than to London.”
He said his approach to his work was “always to listen”, as he was “quite a practical and grounded person”.
And he points to Circus Space, the training programme he and Sealey set up in preparation for the London Paralympics opening ceremony.
Some of those who took part in the programme – and later appeared in the ceremony – were actors, performers, ex-servicemen, or people who “just wanted to have a go and hadn’t self-identified as an artist or anything else”.
He pointed out that the opening ceremony itself featured striking sections towards the end about the importance of protest, including the emergence of the statue of a pregnant Alison Lapper and the performance of Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus.
He said: “There was dialogue, there was certainly common ground and sharing between all those different participating artists, sportspeople and services.
“I wouldn’t have thought they are in completely different camps [at Liberty]. There is always possibility for exchange and sharing and there’s a lot of stuff that perhaps could be done to make sure that happens more.”
Liberty, he said, had always been “a place of exchange, a meeting point, a coming together”, and he has noticed how families who attend because of their interest in the Paralympics “are going back and forward across the [sports and arts] areas and engaging with both”.
Hemmings said there was some relief in the arts sector after the government’s spending review last November.
He said: “It is not just [GDIF] but anybody working in the arts was prepared for a difficult autumn statement in November, and when that didn’t happen there were huge sighs of relief heaved throughout the whole sector.
“We were anticipating a really, really difficult time this year and next and that hasn’t happened in the way we thought it might.”
But although that has meant relief for the Arts Council – Hemmings is a member of the London area council of Arts Council England – many local authorities, which are vital to outdoor theatre around the country, have not been so lucky.
GDIF has been fortunate, though, because Greenwich council has “stuck with the arts through thick and thin”, while committed sponsors such as Canary Wharf Group and London City Airport have also played a significant part in the festival’s continuing success.
At a time of austerity, when many disabled people are finding it difficult to be included in their local communities, Hemmings hopes his festivals can make a contribution.
“There is something about people coming together in large bodies to experience something together in an atmosphere of conviviality,” he said, “which might not sound very much on the surface of it, but it’s actually really important.
“I think all of us need those occasions when we share something wonderful together that is quite different from sitting in any other kind of cultural experiences, because you can’t help but be aware of the other people who are in the audience with you.
“You get this sense of real exhilaration from being in that experience – that is what people tell us, anyway – and I think that’s important and to make sure deaf and disabled people are right in the heart of that too is what I feel I have tried to do.”
14 January 2016
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com