Disability scheme aims to smooth access to MPs
Meeting your MP can be a daunting experience at the best of times.
Particularly if you are disabled.
MPs like to talk about reaching out to all sections of the community but it is easy to feel, if you are in a wheelchair or have some other disability, that it does not include you.
And with so many disabled people worried about looming welfare reforms, there has probably never been a better time for a scheme that aims to get more of them face-to-face with their elected representatives.
The disability campaign group Radar runs an awareness scheme every year to encourage disabled people from across the UK to meet their MPs and raise the issues that matter to them - 51 MPs are signed up to the "MP Dialogue" scheme.
The group advises people about preparing for meetings with their MP, tells them what exactly it is that MPs do and helps Parliamentarians understand their disabled constituents' needs.
End Quote Elaine Precious
The vast majority of people actually don't really have an inkling about what it is like to live with a disability”
So far this year about 70 individuals or groups have requested more information.
Among them is Elaine Precious, who is taking a group of people with learning disabilities to meet two of her local Conservative MPs - David Gauke and Mike Penning - next month at a football club in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
Elaine works for Dacorum Mencap - a local charity which supports people with learning disabilities and thinks meeting more disabled people in person will give MPs a better understanding of the issues that affect them.
"The vast majority of people actually don't really have an inkling about what it is like to live with a disability, the impact it has on every aspect of your life, particularly the poverty it causes within families," she says.
"People with learning disabilities are not likely to go to their MPs' surgery with an issue - they may have a family member who will go on their behalf, but they are not going to think: 'I'm going to speak to my MP about that'"Verbally abused
She said her group would raise issues with the MPs that she might miss - from the effect of bus routes closing to being verbally abused in the street, they would be able to discuss problems that confronted them on a daily basis.
Other issues like local hospitals closing also caused "incredible difficulties" for them, she added - as many will suffer from related health conditions like epilepsy, which will occasionally require hospital treatment.
"Their issues about the local community are probably quite different from the general population's issues - it's quite important they get to speak to their MP about what they feel."
She said aspects of the government's welfare reforms were likely to be raised - such as the new work capability assessment for people on incapacity benefit which questions benefit claimants about what they could do, with a view to seeing if they are potentially fit for work.
"Sometimes they will say to somebody: 'I can do this' and that and actually they can't," she said.
Many of her members would like paid employment and quite a lot do voluntary work, she said, but it was difficult for them to secure paid work.
"On the one hand they do want to work but on the other hand if not able to get a job, they rely on these disability benefits."Benefit changes
Elaine has her own issue to raise with Mr Gauke and Mr Penning. Her son Sam is seriously disabled, and she is worried about proposed changes to the Disability Living Allowance.
Last year Sam, who has severe learning disabilities, moved out of her home in Hertfordshire into full-time residential care about 20 miles away.
She uses the "mobility" part of his DLA - about £50 a week - to pay to hire a car which she can use to take him to appointments and visit him regularly.
But the government had proposed axing that part of the allowance for people in residential care - arguing that local authority contracts with care homes should cover residents' mobility needs.
Elaine says the allowance gives her access to a reliable car that is well maintained. She is worried that, on a low income, she would not be able to afford a decent car and she and her son could be left stranded in the event of a breakdown.
"The thought of being stuck with my son, who is like a two-year-old but he's 20, on the side of a road - it's horrifying really."
She has already raised the issue with her MP in a letter - and got one back - but is hoping for a more "personal" response when she visits Mr Gauke and Mr Penning in July.
The government announced the proposal in last year's spending review - aimed at saving £135m by 2014-15.
It has since said the policy will be rolled into a wider review of Disability Living Allowance - which is due to be replaced with a new benefit - the Personal Independence Payment.
A spokesman said while care homes were obliged to provide mobility support - a study had shown provision was "patchy" and it had never been the intention that people would be left without their mobility needs being met.