Six centres that offer disabled people advice on independent living equipment are set to close in April because their council funding has been withdrawn.
Campaigners say the decisions to close the Disabled Living Centres – all in England – are the latest examples of how government spending cuts are affecting disabled people’s ability to live independently.
Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, which leads the national network of Disabled Living Centres – with 46 in England – said he was “really concerned” about the closures and was surveying his members to discover if other centres were under threat.
He said: “There is often no other way of getting a free, impartial assessment of equipment. If these centres shut, disabled people will be left at the mercy of the market.”
The news came as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said it was launching an investigation into the mobility aids market.
The study will start early next year and examine whether consumers have access to the right information and are being treated fairly by retailers of aids such as wheelchairs, scooters, hoists and bath aids.
The OFT said there were widespread concerns that the sector was “not working well for consumers”, causing higher prices and less choice, with disabled people often buying products that fail to meet their needs.
Nearly 5,000 calls were made last year – an increase of 20 per cent – to complain or seek advice about mobility aids to Consumer Direct, the OFT’s advice service, with most complaints about defective products, customer service, high-pressure selling and misleading advertising.
Norton welcomed the study – although he said he would prefer an examination of the entire assistive technology market – but said the centre closures would only make it harder for disabled people to buy the right products at the right prices.
He said he hoped the study would examine the wide variability in standards among retailers, and the “massive” variation in prices.
He called for better regulation of the market, which could mirror a voluntary scheme Assist UK has been involved in – the Community Equipment Dispenser project – which offers accreditation to retailers and staff.
Announcing the study, the OFT suggested that public bodies such as NHS trusts could be distorting the market by repeatedly using the same suppliers.
Norton believes councils could save thousands of pounds on care packages and disabled facilities grants if NHS wheelchair services were to spend a much smaller sum providing people with the right mobility aids, such as powered wheelchairs with elevating seats.
Christine Shaw, chief executive of the Disabled Living Foundation, also welcomed the inquiry.
The DLF website www.livingmadeeasy.org.uk offers advice, but Shaw said there were “far more people who need information than we currently reach”.
For information about Assist UK, visit www.assist-uk.org
23 November 2010