Blue badge blues: My disability assessment experience

Our community reporter Bernard Leach, a polio survivor, shares his personal thoughts and experience with us after he was recently called in for a disability assessment. 

I caught polio in 1947. Unlike COVID-19 the polio virus had the greatest effect on young people. Polio was later wiped out in this country in the 1950s following a mass vaccination programme (sound familiar?) The polio vaccination is still part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

The polio caused permanent muscle loss in my right leg and hip which led to a deformed foot, an unstable knee and a painful hip joint. I had a series of operations to try and correct the deformity and improve my mobility when I was age seven or eight.

Bernard after an operation on his leg in 1954, age 7.

It is only much later that I found out that my limp and pain in the hips was the result of a dislocated hip joint and the carving out of a false socket by the ball of the hip joint. Like most polio survivors my walking difficulties (and pain) increased with age – sometimes called Post-Polio Syndrome. I can now only walk slowly, with pain, and using a walking stick.

I’ve had a Blue Badge for 10 years or so and it has been hugely important for me, so it was with some anxiety when I opened a letter which called for me to attend an independent mobility assessment (IMA) at the Heathfield Resource Centre in Newton Heath in North Manchester. This took place on 16th December 2021, two weeks before my blue badge was due to run out.

Some background – the Blue Badge scheme enables disabled people to park close to their destination, either as a passenger or driver. There are over 2.55 million Blue Badge holders in the U.K and over 15,500 in Manchester alone. The aim is to issue blue badges only to persons with “severe, genuine and enduring mobility difficulties”.

More recently, people with certain mental health problems can now also apply for a blue badge. The scheme comes at a cost, the Council estimates that the cost of the blue badge scheme is a loss of parking revenue of around £4M annually. Misusing the badge can lead to a £1,000 fine. Manchester City Council recorded 5,799 blue badge offences in 2020, the second highest number in the country.

I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to rely on any disability welfare benefits, but the call for an assessment made me empathise in some small way with those many disabled people who have to ‘prove’ their disability, feel under suspicion and who dread the removal of their benefit, both for the financial hit but also for fear of being labelled a benefits fraud.

I decided to report on my experience of the assessment – how I felt about it, what it involved and what the outcome was. This because whilst there is a lot of information about how to apply for a blue badge, there is nothing I could find about the lived experience of a mobility assessment (IMA).

Bernard and family

I arrived early on the morning of my IMA. It was all a bit bleak. Disabled people were being dropped off in very old looking vans with noisy wheelchair lifts. I remember these being disparagingly called ‘bread wagons’ by some disabled people who had been transported around in them years ago. I was surprised to see that they were still being used.

I had to wait in my car until it was time for my appointment. I walked into reception trying not to exaggerate my limp or any pain I felt (it is hard not too when you feel under observation). I waited for a while until a woman called out my name and came over to me, she introduced herself (she was a physiotherapist) and then started asking my questions whilst I sat, and she stood, in what was a busy foyer.

I asked if we were going to an office or room to have the interview, but she said because of COVID they didn’t like to use their offices. I didn’t feel in a position to object, but I wasn’t very happy with being asked intimate questions in such a busy spot.

To be fair, she turned out to be quite pleasant, certainly not the Nurse Ratched I was half expecting. She told me the reason I had been called for assessment was because in answer to one of the questions, I had said I was able to go to a supermarket and this implied that I was able to walk more than the regulation 50 metres. I pointed out that the only reason I could do this was by using a shopping trolly as a rollator which I could lean on if I needed a rest

The defining walking ability criterion for a blue badge is the ability to walk up to 50m ‘at a very slow pace’. That is, about the width of a football pitch. I pointed out that it was not just the distance involved but the pain involved in walking and that some days it can be better or worse than others. I also showed her x-rays of my dislocated hip and its false acetabulum (socket) which was the cause of my pain (and the reason I could never have a hip replacement). She seemed quite surprised by that, presumably because there aren’t many polio survivors left in this country.

Bernard after an operation on his leg in 1954, age 7.

We went outside so she could observe me walking the 50m, some of it up a ramp. I was conflicted at this point. If I walked further or in the wrong way (whatever that might be), I would be disqualified. I couldn’t bring myself to exaggerate and act like a football player, diving to claim a penalty. I just tried to remember what it is like on my worst days and walk with that in mind.

It was soon all over, and I asked when I would be told their decision. The assessor said I should hear within 10 working days. She seemed quite positive about my chances of approval, so I went away hopeful. This was borne out when I received an email soon after saying that “Your application for a Blue Badge has been processed and Manchester City Council has ordered your badge”.

So, what did I learn from all this? Firstly, how much I needed and relied on my blue badge.

Secondly, how vulnerable, insecure and diminished the whole experience made me feel. The advice I would pass on to any disabled person going through the blue badge process is:

· Be very aware of the 50m rule and that if you give any indication that you can walk further (without explaining why), your application might to be turned down in my opinion

· It is not just a matter of distance, it is also the quality of your experience of walking, especially the pain it might lead to, or the instability of your body as you walk

· Remember that you might have good and bad days so when asked to do the “Perp walk” bear that in mind and talk about it to the assessor

Have you had a similar experience or would like to share a story with us? Please email [email protected]

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