An ombudsman has warned that local authorities are frequently failing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled service-users, particularly those with invisible impairments.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King (pictured), called on local councils in England to be “proactive” in asking every person who approaches one of their services if they need changes to be made in the way they are dealt with.
He also called on councils to read his report and consider if any of their services are putting disabled people at a disadvantage.
He said service-providers must put disabled people’s needs “at the heart of everything the service does, designing services with them in mind, so that their needs can be met before they even come through the door, pick up the phone or write a letter”.
King’s report was published as Disability News Service reported how a disabled woman is being forced to pay hundreds of pounds in clean air zone fines because of her council’s refusal to make reasonable adjustments for her fluctuating health conditions (see separate story).
The ombudsman – which examines complaints about councils, all adult social care providers and some other organisations providing local public services – received 122 complaints in 2021-22 in which Equality Act failures were recorded as a factor, most of them relating to disabled people.
Among the cases described in the report was that of an autistic man who had asked his local council for support with his care needs.
The council arranged a telephone call to assess his needs, and it told him this would last 20 minutes.
Even though he had told the council he could not manage a longer call, it lasted an hour.
He had asked for a face-to-face meeting, but the council had refused.
The ombudsman found the council had failed to meet its obligations under the Equality Act.
Another case involved a council that refused to allow a dyslexic man to appeal a parking fine verbally.
The ombudsman said that dealing with complaints was a “key frontline service” and so local services “should pay particular attention to ensuring complaints processes are accessible for everyone who might use their services”.
- It also called on councils, care providers and other public bodies to review the training needs of all their public-facing staff to ensure they are aware of their duties under the Equality Act, and that there is way to record reasonable adjustments provided for service-users that ensures “continuity of service”.
- It also said they should retain an alternative way for the public to contact them when moving to automated or online-only service delivery, and ensure their contractors also meet their Equality Act duties.
- King said it was “vital” that local service-providers put disabled people’s needs “at the heart of any decisions about how services are designed and delivered”.
- He said: “It is not enough for them to leave this as an add-on or an afterthought – and enabling people with different needs to access their services shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience.
- “If people feel they have not had their reasonable adjustments met, they need to tell their local authority, and then come to us if they do not put things right.”
Five years ago, in a case reported by Disability News Service, the ombudsman was itself found to have discriminated against a disabled woman by failing to provide the reasonable adjustments she needed to lodge a complaint against a local authority.
The ombudsman says it has since made “significant changes” to the way it works, including “asking people at every stage of our process whether they need us to make changes to the way we communicate with them”.
It has also increased the range of reasonable adjustments it can make for disabled people who want to lodge a complaint against a public body.
It agreed to make reasonable adjustments on 1,398 of its cases in 2020-21, covering about eight per cent of the total number of people who lodged a complaint.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…