A disabled people’s organisation has called for public bodies in Cornwall to introduce “true co-production”, following a series of scandals that have raised fears of a culture of disablism in the county.
Disability Cornwall has accused Cornwall Council of creating a “culture of fear” for disabled people and their families, and raised concerns that “prejudice”, “negative attitudes” and “tokenistic engagement” were common within the county’s public bodies.
It spoke out in the wake of the row over comments made by an independent county councillor, Colin Brewer.
In February, Brewer was forced to resign after it emerged that he had suggested disabled children should be “put down” because they cost too much money to support. But he has since decided to seek election back onto Cornwall Council.
Brewer’s comments have now shone a light on other recent examples of hostility towards disabled people in the county.
In 2006, a report was published into years of abusive practices at homes and hospitals run by Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust.
Allegations included “staff hitting, pushing, shoving, dragging, kicking, secluding, belittling, mocking and goading people who used the trust’s services, withholding food, giving cold showers, over zealous or premature use of restraint”, as well as a lack of care, dignity, respect and privacy.
In the same year, 2006, a disabled man, Steven Hoskin, was killed by “friends” who had abused and humiliated him and treated him like a slave, before forcing him to plunge to his death from the edge of a viaduct.
A serious case review later found that every part of the adult protection system in Cornwall had been guilty of “significant failures” in dealing with the abuse Hoskin was experiencing.
Last year, six years on from the death of Steven Hoskin, police figures showed that Devon and Cornwall police had reported just four disability hate crimes in the previous year.
Mike Smith, then the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability commissioner, said that he found the figure “incredible” – Leicestershire police had reported 255 disability hate crimes in the same period – and added: “I do not believe that somehow they have created a magic environment in which disability hate crime is not happening.”
Smith said then that it was still too early to use the expression “institutional disablism” to describe any public bodies, but added: “If we are getting numbers like four [disability hate crimes] in a year’s time, I would find it hard not to.”
And towards the end of last summer’s Paralympic Games in London, Toby Hines, owner and editor of the Cornish weekly Helston News and Advertiser, wrote two editorials attacking people who used Motability vehicles, and comparing them unfavourably with Paralympic athletes.
Steve Paget, chair of Disability Cornwall, said this week that his organisation feared that “pervasive and negative attitudes towards disabled adults, children and their families do not exist in isolation and are part of a culture that perceives disabled children and adults as a burden on council budgets”.
Disability Cornwall said it had been “inundated” with comments from disabled people and their families as a result of widespread publicity given to Brewer’s comments.
Paget said that a “culture of fear” was preventing individual disabled people and family carers from speaking up, for fear of losing access to services, while many disability organisations were scared to speak out because they were renegotiating contracts for council funding.
He said: “We believe true co-production, involving the people who actually use public services, in designing, planning and implementing those services, is the best way forward.
“It would ensure public bodies such as Cornwall Council and health services improve the manner in which they serve the local population and perhaps issues and prejudices, such as those already seen, can be avoided.
“Tokenistic engagement and negative attitudes, combined with a lack of transparency, is perhaps how the situation in Cornwall has come about.”
Neil Burden, an independent councillor and the lead member for children’s services for Cornwall Council, who himself is disabled, said he believed the culture in the county was “one of understanding and acceptance, especially in local village-type communities”.
But he said the “greatest challenge” for disabled people was in accessing acute hospital services, which was “often the hardest area to get understanding and support as both a day patient and in-patient”.
A spokeswoman for Cornwall Council said the local authority took its responsibilities around disability “extremely seriously”.
She pointed to various initiatives, including the council’s work with Cornwall People First on the Safe Places scheme – which offers safe havens for people with learning difficulties who experience harassment, abuse or other problems while out in the community – and on increasing options for disabled people to report hate crime in third party reporting centres.
She added: “All members and staff are offered equality and diversity training when they join the council.”
She said this training was mandatory for paid staff, while equality and diversity training workshops would be offered to all new councillors elected next month during the first week of their induction programme.
18 April 2013