Deaf and disabled people are set to march on Downing Street on Saturday (26 September) to protest at government cuts to the Access to Work scheme.
Activists from across the country will gather first outside the Houses of Parliament at noon, before marching to Downing Street at 1pm to hand in a petition protesting about the cuts.
They say that changes introduced under the coalition and the current government have made it “increasing difficult” for Deaf and disabled people to access the scheme, and have left many others struggling to continue in their jobs after years of claiming the funding successfully.
The petition, which by this evening (Thursday) had been signed by nearly 19,000 people, and has been put together by the Stop Changes To Access To Work campaign, warns that because Deaf and disabled people are having their AtW allowances capped or cut, they are no longer able to afford to use qualified interpreters or pay for the other support they need.
The petition says: “This places jobs at risk and has already resulted in job losses and demotions.
“People currently in work are potentially being forced out of work and onto benefits, which goes against everything the government is telling us they are trying to achieve.”
Next month, a new cap on AtW support packages will be introduced by the government, and protesters say it will “actively discriminate” against Deaf and disabled people with high support needs in senior positions.
The cap will limit annual AtW awards to one-and-a-half times the average salary, which at current levels would mean no-one could claim more than £40,800 per year through AtW, with new claimants facing the cap from October this year, and existing claimants from April 2018.
This is likely to hit Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) hardest, with about four-fifths of the highest-value AtW awards paying for BSL services.
Campaigners also say that “hostile advisors, delayed payments and continuous inefficiencies and errors” are causing so much anxiety that people are having to quit their jobs.
A rally outside Downing Street on Saturday will hear from speakers including Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae and co-director of the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony, one of the highest-profile AtW-users.
She said: “Access to Work was and still should be a scheme that creates opportunities for Deaf and disabled people to have full and equal access within the work place.
“AtW allowed me and many others to do the London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony.
“Had the cap come in then we would not have achieved what we did and the threat of the cap will severely thwart ambition and push us to the sidelines, creating an unequal playing field.”
Dr Terry Riley, chief executive of the British Deaf Association (BDA), backed the march, and said: “We at the BDA want to show solidarity with those members of the Deaf community who are being negatively and unfairly affected by these changes.
“From our community’s feedback, we can see that restricting support budgets, cutting hours and imposing unrealistic ceilings on interpreters’ fees are making it even more difficult for Deaf BSL-users in employment.
“It’s concerning that the jobs of many Deaf BSL-users, whose support needs now cannot be met, could be at risk.
“The BDA is currently researching the effects of the new cap policy on any new Deaf applicants and hope the government will be open to listening to our findings.”
Colette Forrest, who was forced to quit her job as a company director because of AtW problems, said: “The quality of service dropped and my time became completely absorbed by Access to Work, dealing with their delays, lack of understanding and having to go over the same information again and again, leaving me unable to do my job.
“It left me feeling disempowered and – as a businesswoman – I was no longer able to fulfil my role at work as a decision-maker. As a result, I felt I had no choice but to leave my job.”
Geraldine O’Halloran, co-founder of the Stop Changes To Access to Work campaign, said: “Numbers using the Access to Work scheme are down from 2009; meanwhile, we know many Deaf and disabled people whose working lives have been made intolerable by the strain caused by the changes to Access to Work.”
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last Labour government, AtW was supporting more than 37,000 disabled people, but this plunged under the coalition to 30,780 in 2011-12, although it has increased again in the last couple of years.
The latest figures show 36,760 disabled people were helped in 2013-14, still below the figure of 37,270 for 2009-10.
While the number of existing claimants continuing to receive AtW funding rose by nearly 2,000 last year, the number of “new customers helped” dropped sharply, from 12,710 in 2013-14 to 12,050 in 2014-15.
And research by disability organisations, reported in February by Disability News Service, found that nearly all of the disabled people whose AtW entitlement had been reviewed were having their support cut.
Pictured: Jenny Sealey (second from right) with an interpreter and cast members at a rehearsal of Graeae’s production of Blood Wedding. Picture by Ross Fraser McLean