The closure of Assist UK, which leads the national network of disabled living centres, comes at a time when the unique range of advice provided by its national helpline was proving more vital than ever because of the government’s welfare reforms.
Assist – which has been operating since the 1970s – is to close at the end of October, with the loss of five jobs, although the membership network of around 40 disabled living centres (DLCs) is said to be “soldiering on despite cuts and financial pressures”.
Most DLCs stock a range of independent living equipment that allows disabled people to try products and ask staff for advice on daily living issues. They respond to about 250,000 enquiries a year.
The Assist helpline offered impartial, independent advice to disabled people on issues such as independent living, specialist questions on equipment, end-of-life care, and the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP), which is replacing working-age disability living allowance.
Assist also carried out consultations with disabled people, represented their views – and those of DLCs – on advisory groups, influenced legislation, pushed for national standards, reported safety concerns to the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and has even helped to design Nissan’s new accessible taxi.
It also inspected DLCs to make sure they met key standards.
Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist, said: “We have been clearing the office and it just feels so wrong to be burning or shredding the wealth of information we have here.
“We don’t know of a helpline that does the same work. There are lots of people who are now likely to get the wrong equipment.”
He added: “I don’t think the government recognise the value of third sector organisations at national level. There is nowhere for them to go to get secure funding.
“The sooner the government recognise the savings they could make the better. Every piece of equipment that gives somebody the ability to do something themselves saves care costs.
“It also gives them the pride and the opportunity to choose and the chance to run their own lives. Where will they go now for this kind of advice?”
Assist’s core funding from the Department of Health was withdrawn seven years ago, and the strain of trying to find new sources of funding has finally told.
Norton said: “It’s at a time when DLCs are really coming into their own because with PIP coming into force, thousands of disabled people may have their benefits cut, and there is a risk of losing their Motability vehicles and their mobility allowances may be stopped or reduced.
“They will need to look at equipment as an alternative to care and our centres will be busier than ever.”
Norton said that most of the DLCs were also struggling financially, with more and more local councils withdrawing contracts as they faced their own funding crises.
In some of these local authorities, DLCs were being replaced by commercial equipment-providers, who offer councils cut-price, nose-to-tail services including assessments, equipment delivery and maintenance.
Norton said: “DLCs are the only impartial place to go for free, independent advice, not linked to sales; what you need, not what is on the company’s shelves. Without that choice of equipment you get in DLCs, people are very likely to get the wrong stuff.
“All our centres and occupational therapists want to be impartial, they don’t want to be involved in selling, they want to give free open advice.”
Norton will now be working as a consultant, with the company he set up in late 2012, Into Independence, which has the same mission and values as Assist.
He started the company when the government contractor Capita asked him to work part-time offering advice on its buildings and in training its receptionists, in preparation for the company’s role in delivering PIP assessments for the Department for Work and Pensions.
2 October 2014