The fight for rights

Disabled people, elderly people, people with learning
difficulties are all speaking out loudly for their rights, and they
are beginning to be heard, writes Audrey Thompson

Characters from Coronation Street, Percy Sugden and Maud Grimes,
the tyrant in the wheelchair, are perhaps the most feisty
pensioners on prime time national television. They are prepared to
speak their minds and protest loudly for things they believe in –
and now they have been joined by the egg-throwing Lilly Dempsey
demonstrating against council proposals to change the name of her
residential home.

This image might have been fiction years, even months, ago, but
more and more vulnerable people – elderly, disabled, mentally ill
and with learning difficulties – are mobilising into action – and
council charges and lost services are what is fuelling their

Dozens of elderly and disabled people using day centres in Bath
and North East Somerset protested recently outside the council’s
offices against a £1 a day levy. People are angry about the
charges and growing angrier all the time, says Anita Clelland, Bath
secretary of learning difficultiescharity MENCAP.

‘It may not seem a lot of money at the moment but it is the thin
end of the wedge, and if we do not make a fuss now, before you know
it the charge will be £3 or £4 a day,’ Clelland says.

The most vulnerable people in society are protesting, and those
who are more able than others are demonstrating on behalf of those
too frail or disabled to demonstrate themselves. ‘The protest goes
across the board and everybody is beginning to say enough is
enough,’ says Clelland.

‘In the past people, especially vulnerable people, have been
apathetic and would see a situation such as this as a fait
accompli. ‘This time so many services are being withdrawn or
charges levied it is ridiculous, and it is getting right up
people’s noses. A wider and wider range of people are now saying
no,’ she adds.

James O’Rourke, campaigns officer for MENCAP, agrees and sees
this campaign as just one of many springing up around the country.
‘More people are challenging the idea of charges and questioning
the amounts levied. There are so many campaigns going on it is hard
to keep track of them all.’

Parliament has seen graphic demonstrations recently where many
people in wheelchairs and other disabled people, campaigning for
anti-discrimination laws, have been taken away by police when they
refused to be moved.

In Cheshire, one of the first areas to oppose council charges,
carers and clients from all the local carers groups staged some of
the biggest protests, which helped delay their introduction in the

Although the protests could not forestall the eventual
introduction of charges, their example set the tone for future
campaigns, and is seen as the beginning of a protest movement now
reaching the point where clients’ and carers’ tempers are in danger
of exploding.

One lesson learned is that vulnerable people need allies. In
some cases these have been found in day centre staff encouraging
their clients, if they feel so strongly about council decisions, to
stand up for themselves. And the advice has been gratefully

Geoff Corkett, an officer at the Six Acres day centre for people
with learning difficulties in Taunton, Somerset, says: ‘The clients
would moan like hell to us but we told them: “There is no point
moaning to us, do something about it”. And they did.’

He sees the increase in protests and demonstrations as a direct
result of the growing numbers of advocacy groups made up of clients
fighting for their rights. He says: ‘Client committees and
self-advocacy groups are popping up all over the county. They
encourage people to retaliate and they are doing the shouting for
the less able clients. These groups, at least the one attached to
this day centre, have only been around for a couple of years.
Clients obviously feel the need to organise themselves.’

In Taunton this culminated in a ‘standing room only’
demonstration inside the county hall where 150 people protested
against charges which took effect in April. ‘I am all for clients
demonstrating,’ says Corkett. ‘The more they speak up for
themselves the more the senior officers will take notice of

Vulnerable clients need to be active in response to council
charges because now more than ever they are seen as an easy target,
says Mark West, district officer for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire
& Oxfordshire MENCAP.

‘Increasingly individuals with learning difficulties are being
targeted by councils for charges or cuts in services. They are the
first client groups councils choose, as they are so vulnerable.
Quite often their views are ignored and they have to resort to
protests to make councils listen. Unfortunately, I see the trend
for this kind of protest increasing in the near future,’ he

Tony Maughan, honorary general secretary of the Greater London
Pensioners Association, believes the whole ethos of elderly and
vulnerable people is changing. ‘As a group we are surprisingly
passive and continue to suffer in silence, but action taken by
groups such as the road protesters, demonstrating around a single
issue, has given us encouragement.

‘People are getting more and more fed up with the situation in
which they find themselves and there is a definite sense
protesting, particularly with an election coming up, is what is
needed,’ he says.

These sentiments are echoed by the director of the Greater
London Forum for the Elderly, Carole Newman. She says: ‘There is
mounting anger about day care charges. There have been more
protests lately with the development of forums, as once people come
together they realise others think the same way they do, and that
there is a great wrong being done to vulnerable elderly people who
cannot afford to pay.’

Forums and pensioner action groups will not stop protesting
against charges because, she adds, they believe, even with a new
Labour government, day care charges and service withdrawals may

The demonstrations are beginning to have some effect. In
Norfolk, People First, the advocacy group run by people with
learning difficulties, was successful in reversing the council’s
decision to levy day care charges regardless of whether someone
used the facilities for half a day or five days a week.

If a client’s income and benefits amounted to below £100
per week they would have to pay £3.65, between £100 and
£150 the charge would be £38 and above £150 it would
be £62.

For someone doing special placement work at the day centres,
such as gardening or light industrial work, who were paid £3
per day, it would have meant they would pay the local authority for
the privilege of working rather than the other way around. Maggie
Beat, adviser for People First Norfolk, says: ‘The members asked
me: “Do you have to pay to go to work?”. They felt offended, not
because of the loss of money they could not afford, but the loss to
their self-esteem.’

This was the trigger, she says; a lot of people felt it was
unfair. As a result of the demonstrations and the lobbying of
councillors, the council dropped plans to levy day care charges.
Unfortunately, they reintroduced transport charges instead.

In Liverpool elderly protesters stopped the local authority
cutting their funding to lunch clubs and the good neighbourhood
services. Members of Age Concern Liverpool got publicity on the
local radio and television stations, which informed elderly people
across the region and went a long way to put pressure on the
council to change its decision.

It seems younger pensioners have more idea about their rights
and entitlements than older pensioners did a few years ago and they
are using the information as a weapon.

Around the county vulnerable people are learning they no longer
have to put up with being pushed around. Trading on the mounting
anger over day care charges and cuts in services, client-led
advocacy groups are galvanising support among themselves and others
to fight back.

Local authorities and social services, in particular, should not
be surprised, as hearing what clients want has always been a
laudable aim which allows professionals to deliver appropriate
services. What might be surprising is the growing number of
advocacy groups and the pro-active way they have launched
themselves at the task.

As Dawn Blanch, a member of People First Norfolk says: ‘This was
my first time at protesting because I was angry. A lot of people
even said they would not pay the charge. Quite a lot of us
protested and we know how to do it now. We’ve all got learning
difficulties and we have got to help other people with learning

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