The government has been forced to make a series of promises aimed at improving the accessibility of the way it communicates with those shielding from coronavirus.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) made the concessions hours before it was due to face a judicial review hearing brought by disabled campaigner Sarah Leadbetter.
Leadbetter, who is blind, took legal action against the department after receiving inaccessible shielding letters during the pandemic.
She did not know she had received any of the four letters about shielding that were sent to her during 2020 until she was told about them by her mother.
She argued that the failure to provide these letters to blind and partially-sighted people in an accessible format was unlawful disability discrimination, a breach of their human rights, and a failure to comply with the government’s accessible information standard.
Now DHSC will have to reconsider the way it communicates with those on the shielding list, and must start to introduce any changes within four months.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock will also continue to work with GPs and hospitals to improve the recording of communication needs in patients’ records.
DHSC has promised to “reconsider” its practice of sending out hard copy letters to those on the shielding list that are not “tailored to their communication preferences”; to consider how this information can be given in an accessible format; and to investigate how to address “shortcomings” in identifying people’s communication needs.
Leadbetter (pictured), from Narborough, Leicestershire, was not sent any information about shielding in a format that was accessible to her, and only found out she was on the list of shielded patients when her mother read a letter she had been sent.
She said: “I am very happy that the DHSC has agreed to change its practices following my legal action.
“It has been a long battle for me to get important information about my health in accordance with my communication needs and I hope these changes will mean that I, and other disabled people, will now start getting information in an accessible format.”
Solicitor Kate Egerton, from Leigh Day, who represents Leadbetter, said: “I am very pleased that the DHSC has agreed to reconsider how it provides information to disabled people who are shielding.
“Sarah’s case raised important issues about the accessible information standard which requires health bodies to identify, record and then act on communication needs, and there is no greater time to ensure this is implemented than in a global pandemic.
“I am confident that the work the DSHC has commissioned will mean that a system will be put in place that automatically means that disabled people will get information in their preferred format, without having to ask for this basic right over and over again.
“I also believe that this case will send an important reminder to GPs and hospitals that they are legally required to proactively ask patients what their communication needs are, and then record and act upon this information.”
Alastair Pringle, executive director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in the case, said: “Receiving health information in a way in which we can access and understand it is always important.
“During a pandemic, it is vital, especially when it contains information about the need to shield.
“We welcome the news that the DHSC has now agreed to change the way that they communicate with disabled people during the pandemic.
“This is essential for Sarah and the many other disabled people who may have found themselves in a similar situation.”
DHSC confirmed the details of the agreement.
A DHSC spokesperson said in a statement: “We are doing everything we can to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
“The government has supported disabled people throughout this pandemic and we continue to assess what further support can be offered, including options for providing accessible shielding information to patients directly.
“It is vital that people have access to the right materials, and we’ve made a range of public health information, including guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable, available in a variety of formats including easy read, British Sign Language, audio and braille.
“Letters summarising shielding advice for the clinically extremely vulnerable are also available in a number of formats and languages, and are also sent electronically by email where an individual has registered an email address with their GP practice.”
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