Rulings by an ombudsman that show how three London councils discriminated against disabled people with invisible impairments by failing to make their services accessible are just “a tiny tip of an iceberg”, according to a disabled people’s organisation.
Inclusion London spoke out after the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman published reports on investigations into three local authorities in the capital.
All three of the councils – the London boroughs of Hillingdon, Lambeth and Wandsworth –failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people who were trying to use its services.
Svetlana Kotova, Disability Justice Project co-ordinator for Inclusion London, welcomed the ombudsman’s rulings, but she said that the three cases were “just a tiny tip of an iceberg”.
She said: “Despite it being a legal requirement, we often come across failures to provide information in accessible formats, refusals to change standard procedures and practices or provide support for people to engage in the processes.
“We’ve seen people losing their homes or money or not getting information or support they are entitled to as a result.
“Unfortunately, many of us got used to this discrimination, but we believe it is time we started to challenge it.”
She said Inclusion London had developed interactive guides that can help disabled people to challenge these practices*.
In the first of the cases dealt with by the ombudsman, Hillingdon council failed to suspend an autistic and dyslexic woman’s housing benefit payments after she told the local authority she had returned to work.
When Ms X received an overpayment of more than £1,000, the council then failed to help her find her way around its complicated system after demanding she repay the money.
It refused to provide her with a named officer she could email and often insisted she telephone the council with her queries, even though she explained she struggled with phone calls.
The ombudsman concluded that the council “failed to consider any reasonable adjustments for Ms X, although she told it many times what her problems are and how she struggled”.
He also concluded that the council had no policies on providing reasonable adjustments.
Hillingdon council has agreed to take a series of measures, including apologising to Ms X, paying her £1,000 compensation, and providing an equality refresher course for frontline staff.
In the second case, Mr X, who is dyslexic, complained that Lambeth council failed to make reasonable adjustments when he tried to challenge a parking penalty charge notice (PCN), forcing him to do so in writing rather than verbally.
And when the council sent enforcement agents to his home to recover the money he owed, those agents also refused to make reasonable adjustments for him.
Lambeth council has agreed to pay Mr X compensation of £750 and apologise to him.
It has also been asked to take other measures, such as arranging Equality Act training for customer service staff and other steps to ensure it meets its obligations under the act.
In the third ombudsman case, Wandsworth council failed to make similar reasonable adjustments for the same man when he tried to apply for a residents’ parking permit and challenge the PCNs he later received because he did not have a permit.
The council has agreed to pay Mr X £300 compensation, apologise and allow him to appeal the PCNs on the telephone, while the ombudsman has also asked the council to take other measures, such as arranging Equality Act training for customer service staff, and reviewing its systems and procedures relating to reasonable adjustments.
Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “The Equality Act 2010 requires councils to anticipate the needs of people who may need to access their services.
“This means when councils are alerted to the fact someone might need to be treated in a different way, they should ask that person what adjustments are needed, and consider whether these are reasonable.
“It can be difficult for people to navigate complex council procedures, yet in all three cases, the councils were made aware that these people needed additional help, but none was given.
“We recognise the significant challenges faced by public service providers in adapting their processes to the needs of people who may require adjustments, particularly where the services have been automated.
“But this is a duty councils must meet and needs they must anticipate.
“I welcome Wandsworth and Hillingdon councils’ commitment to improve their wider processes for people who need help accessing services.
“I urge Lambeth council to reflect on the lessons it can learn from my investigation and make the changes I have recommended.”
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