Sixty second interview with Bert Massie
By Amy Taylor
Bert Massie is chair of the Disability Rights Commission.
You have called for a ‘full and frank debate’ about the consequences over cautious risk assessments are having on disabled people’s lives. Why is this needed?
The DRC has launched a national Disability Debate to discuss with disabled people and others how to ensure disabled people can participate in society on equal terms and as equal active citizens. One of the barriers we have identified so far is an over-cautious approach to risk. For disabled people the word ‘risk’ often means being viewed as ‘vulnerable’ – or as a risk to other people – rather than people who may need support to participate and contribute to their family, workplace or community. The glass is half empty rather than half full. Disabled people just want the same opportunities to take risks as everyone else and that means we need a more sensible approach to risk management both for disabled people and those around them.
What kinds of overcautious situations are occurring at the moment?
A social services department was concerned that including napkins when delivering meal on wheels ran the risks of their customers choking on them. A grab rail installed over the front steps of a disabled woman’s home was ruled out because of fear that she might miss it and fall. A student who was a wheelchair user wanted to study IT at 6th form college but was denied because they could not countenance the risk of his climbing wheelchair tipping him out on the stairs. Other disabled people have lost their jobs because of perceived risk but no one took account to the risk to their health caused by unemployment.
Ill-conceived assessment of risk corrodes choices and capacity for disabled people to live independent lives. Rather than promoting sensible provision it is being used to create barriers. The care package of a disabled man was circumscribed to nothingness because social services staff were no longer prepared to run the risk of placing his wheelchair in the boot of the car used to transport him. The same people probably place large packets of supermarket shopping in the boot of their own cars without thinking about it. No one supports reckless risk but the quest to avoid all risk has resulted in current policies harming disabled people and they need to be questioned.
What would you say to social workers who might argue that they have to be cautious because it will be them who are held responsible if anything happens to the disabled person, rather than the disabled person themselves?
This goes to the heart of the issue. Is the purpose of social work intervention to promote the independence of disabled people or is it to ensure that, in a society that takes comfort from being able to blame someone, the rule book has been followed and the consequences are irrelevant? If the latter we are all lost. Risk assessment should also include an evaluation of the consequences of not taking any risks. The “protect my back no risk option” has resulted in people sleeping for months in a wheelchair because no one would lift them out. We need to support social workers to manage risk not avoid it.
If disabled people are allowed to take more risks in order to have a better quality of life do you think it is fair for some of the responsibility of these risks and their possible consequences is to be transferred onto the disabled person themselves?
There has to be a sharing of responsibility – and of risk. If a disabled person chooses to have a grab rail in her garden after being told she cannot because she might miss it and fall, that is her responsibility. We need frameworks of sensible health and safety law and policy, but the aim cannot be to reduce risk to zero – nor can it be for social services to be responsible for every aspect of a person’s life. We all take risks every day and take responsibility for them – and disabled people are no exception.
The adult social care green paper aims to enable adults to have more control and their lives and, like you, calls for a ‘more open debate about risk management and what it means’. Do you think these proposals will help to bring about change and what does the government need to do to ensure that they do?
Any attempt to increase choice – as the green paper suggest – must involve tackling the way that risk adverse policies can and do constrain choices for disabled people. There should also be a review of the way that health and safety guidance is implemented. The HSE’s recently launched discussion in this area is welcome, to ensure it is fully balanced with the need for independence and control. As the recent High Court ruling against East Sussex County Council found, there is a strong need for a balanced approach to the rights of disabled people and the rights of workers to be protected by health and safety regulations. But the imposing of a blanket ban on manual lifts represents a “no risk” regime rather than seeking to offer independence and dignity to disabled people and minimising any risk to workers.