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Universal Credit and Astronomy for the Blind

In Touch talks to researchers behind a report into how blind and visually impaired people could be affected by the change to universal credit.

Six existing benefits have been consolidated into Universal Credit - which the Government says will make the transition between welfare and work, more simple. But a new report from Thomas Pocklington Trust is highlighting changes which it feels will leave future blind and visually impaired claimants worse off.
And astronomy for the blind - Portsmouth University's Dr Nicholas Bonne takes us through the "Tactile Universe". The project conveys the marvels of the universe to children by using 3D models of galaxies. The more intense an area of light - the more raised it is from the surface.
And blind physiotherapist Mike Cassidy gives us some tips on avoiding a repetitive strain caused by a cane.
Presented by Peter White
Produced by Kevin Core.

Available now

20 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 26-06-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Universal Credit and Astronomy for the Blind

TX:  26.06.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            KEVIN CORE

 

 

White

Tonight, visually impaired benefit claimants of the future could be entitled to less money.  And the astronomer who wants us to feel the universe!

 

Clip - Nicholas

It was one of the pitches of Neptune that that the Voyager 2 Probe sent back.  And it was just the most beautiful sort of striking blue colour.  And it was so blue that I could see it.

 

White

More from Dr. Nicholas Bonne later in the programme.

 

But first, visually impaired people claiming benefits for the first time are increasingly likely to find themselves on universal credit, that's a government reform, which it says will make welfare simpler and fairer.  But a report just out from the Sight Loss Charity 'Thomas Pocklington Trust' says "Some new claimants could be substantially poorer than their predecessors".  Universal Credit combines six benefits into one, including ESA or Employment and Support Allowance that's for those finding it difficult to find work due to their disability. 

 

The credit system is intended to make it easier to move between welfare and work without big fluctuations in your income, but the report claims that stopping disability premiums, which compensate for the added cost of being disabled could lead to lower benefits for some people in the future.  Jeff Fimister is a benefits consultant to the trust.

 

Jeff

In most scenarios, disabled people will be worse off of the new system than they would have been on the old system.  How much worse off, depends on their particular situation what benefits and combination of benefits they're on and what their household structure is etc.

 

White

But can you give us sort of the the potential areas that you think there's a risk of this happening?

 

Jeff

Yeah.  Universal Credit is structured differently to the old benefits, so it's not straightforward.  But the premiums, the disability premiums, severe disability premium and enhanced disability premium there all - there all going on the whole.  And the other factor is one that's already come into play, which is the addition that you used to get if you were in the Employment Support Allowance work related activity group - there was an addition of £29 a week which was abolished for new claims in April 2017 and that carried through into Universal Credit.  And if you put the two together like say you've got somebody who claims Universal Credit since April 2017, they would have got the Severed Disability premium and they're not going to get it now and their living alone - That person would be over £90 a week worse off under the new system than they would under the old system.

 

White

Would it be fair to say, you are taking a worst case scenario?

 

Jeff

Oh yes that's it...as I say, it's a very very varied situation depending on people's individual circumstances.

 

White

Now we have stressed that the changes apply to new claimants.  And we did ask to talk to a Minister from the Department for Work & Pensions - None was available.  But they did tell us 'They will be protecting people who receive severe disability premium' they say 'they can keep that when their moved onto universal credit and they'll make additional payments to people and universal credit who previously got the severe disability premium.  That suggests that existing claimants' incomes will be protected.

 

Jeff

This is people moving from the legacy benefits, that's the benefits that sort of feeding into Universal Credit.  Now the government have said all along that they will have transitional protection when the new system rolls out, which means that they will continue to get their old benefit rates until the new benefit rates eventually overtakes it.  Now there are problems with that because you can quite easily lose those that protection if you have a change of circumstances once you're in the new system such as a a new partner or you you lose a partner.

 

White

Well in another report, it's stated that other state benefits such as personal independence payments don't fully cover the added costs of visual impairment.  Catherine Hill of the Centre for Research & Social Policy at Loughborough University is one of the authors of that report, which was commissioned by 'The Pocklington Trust'.  So what exactly does your report say about people situation as far as their incomes are concerned?

 

Catherine

What we found was that people are prioritised on their basic needs, but people who are visually impaired do have extra costs of living.  And there are other needs that they find it harder to meet.

 

White

So what sort of things are people doing without, what did you find?

 

Catherine

Some things for example are very important like social participation, so getting out and about meeting other people.  It's really important for people's wellbeing especially as the research we did.  We were speaking to people who were living alone, but this can be hard because it can require extra costs for example of having taxis or support with getting out and about. 

 

White

That is surely what personal independence payment is supposed to do, and isn't the government reasonably entitled to say, you know that that's what it is and blind and partially sighted people have done reasonably well under the change from Disability Living Allowance to PIPs?

 

Catherine

Perhaps but the the people we spoke too, particularly working age people felt that they were using some of their payments for basic living needs, so there was less available to pay for these other things.

 

White

Alot of the solutions people are told about now on this programme amongst other places is the amount of technology there is about.  Did people talk about that to you?

 

Catherine

Yes that was really important to some people!  So for example, where somebody who had been say given a laptop, they were teaching themselves to type but they needed the software. And the accessible software to go with it was very expensive, she wasn't able to afford that and she talked about feeling left behind. 

 

White

Jeff Fimister, just finally to bring us back to the issue of specific benefits.  What are you asking the government to do?  The National Audit Office, which recently produced a highly critical report about the way Universal Credit was being introduced, still saw no alternative to carrying on with it - they, they thought that was the only thing to do - so what should they do?

 

Jeff

Very specifically on the Universal Credit, we'd like to see some work done to put back the elements that have gone or something like them.  We also think transitional protection should itself be protected, so that people don't easily lose it once their receiving so these are all things that we would...we would urge our ministers based on this source of research. 

 

White

That was Benefits Consultant Jeff Fimister and Catherine Hill from Loughborough University. 

Now there was a time when one white cane was very much like another, but we've seen increased variations in there length, the material used and the addition of a roller on the tip so that you can push it as well as swing it.  Well Cathy Gulliver is a visually impaired nurse and she uses one, but it's becoming a bit of a pain - she told me where!

 

Cathy (Phone)

Golfers Elbow is basically information of the bicep tendons and ligaments.  And particularly, I've noticed when I've been using my INAUD cane when one has to sleep in the outwards movement, you can really notice it in your hand and your elbow and even your shoulder, because the roller ball bounces or it will stick in a crack in the pavement - you get very much a jarring effect in your whole arm.  But I just wondered if other people suffer from it and how they cope with it?

 

White

So who better to offer some advice than a blind physiotherapist, who has used a roller cane - a tall order, we found one!  Mike Cassidy has just retired after a lifetime in the job.

 

Mike

It maybe that she's sweeping too far out to the right!  And if she shortened the sweep to the right, it may decrease the problem a little.

 

White

And and what are the most vulnerable parts in your arm if you can give us perhaps a a picture of what might be happening there?

 

Mike

The inside of the elbow where these tendons attach is one area.  I think that the risk can be the shoulder can be!  And as I say, the whole of the upper limb really is is vulnerable because as one uses these canes over a period of time, your right hand shoulder blade will tend to be held forward so the muscles that control the shoulder blade in front will tend to be shortened.  Those are the back will tend to have lengthened, so your whole upper limb symmetry has has gone up the creek.

 

White

So I mean Cathy is seeing her own physio but generally speaking any particular tips that you might give?

 

Mike

Yeah, I would advise her to shorten the sweep to the outside. The other thing she could try is to slide the cane so that a portion of the handle part of the cane is resting on her forearm rather than the full extent stretching out in front of her.  That would unload the arm a bit and so as it were, take the weight off it.  She may find that a bit sort of hazardous because then any obstacle she encounters with the cane will be closer to her, but a lighter cane would help her I should think if there is one about. 

 

White

Physiotherapist Mike Cassidy!

 

Further tips for Cathy Gulliver welcome!

Now getting your head round the Universe its size, its shape is a pretty tough call for anyone.  But as a totally blind person myself, these are concepts I really struggle with.  But Dr, Nicholas Bonne thinks he's found a way to help and who better, he was born with a very small amount of vision himself, but he's a Senior Astronomer at Portsmouth University's Institute of Cosmology & Gravitation where he's leading a project called 'The Tactile Universe'.  It gives an idea of the light coming from stars and galaxies by using special models for blind children in two Hampshire Schools.  He began by explaining how he conveys to them the sheer scale of space.

 

Nicholas

So the distances are obviously pretty vast and even for a a fully sighted person it's not the easiest thing to understand.  What we found though is if we can break things down, so start off with really small relatable distances like how long it takes you to walk from your home to your local store?  Then, we can talk about how long it will take you to walk from one end of the UK to the other? And we can talk about the size of the earth, the distance between the earth and the moon and the distance between the earth and the sun just keep scaling that up until we hit the galactic sizes, which are obviously much much larger.

 

White

So that's as much about talking about it as it is about finding something to touch really?

 

Nicholas

Absolutely!  So where the tactile aspect comes in is more to do with interpreting the light.  When someone with a bit of a vision looks at an image of a galaxy say, they see parts of that object that are brighter that are dimmer and that's kind of how their eyes interpret the shape of that.  So the way the models work is we basically take the pixels that make up these images and we scale them based on how bright they are, so if you imagine the picture lying flat on a table or if the pixel is the brightest pixel in that image, it'll be raised up above that picture.  So we did a lot of tests with members of the the vision impaired community around Portsmouth to try and workout what the best height would be.  We ended up choosing at around about 3mm, so these things aren't particularly high but your fingertips are really sensitive so you can feel the the change in height.  If it's a really dark pixel so close to black, it'll sit flush with that that image lying on the table.  And then all the other shades of grey for those pixels sort of scale in-between, so you almost end up with a relief map of that galaxy.  But when you run your hand over the top of that when you feel it with your fingertips; you're interpreting that change and brightness just the same way that your eyes would be if you could look at the image.

 

White

So what do the children make of Dr. Bonne's tactile representation of the universe?  We dropped into Toynbee School in Eastleigh, Hampshire as some of the children ran their fingers over Galaxy M51.

 

Azzam

I'm Azzam and I'm 12yrs old.  So what I can feel is a...is a bulge in the centre and some drifting off stars.  And there is a...there is a real contrast between the bulge and the other stars that are more off to the side.  And then when you move onto the other ones you get a different light being seen so there different, the stars are being at different temperatures.  So with this that I'm feeling right now the star and the galaxies aren't as bright as some of the other ones where there bulges is high...are higher and the stars are more sharper. 

 

Jenna

I'm Jenna and I'm 13.  So that was like kind of like a spiral shape, it's kind of like a smallish spiral and it's like more bits that around it like there all like stars around it, you can go and like care what it looks like how light it is!

 

Harris

I'm Harris, I'm 15.  It's not got much going on and there's less bumps so there's probably less stars in this galaxy.  Its, it was interesting its good cos we can understand what's going on and what there is, cos we're just here on earth we can't actually understand what's going on, especially with someone who can't see anything.  Tactile the...the models really help you understand the detail of things that are up there. 

 

Jenna

It's the feeling of not knowing what's out there really and why we're here and I feel like it's a great way to understand more about the Universe and seeing that there's more than just what we know about life.

 

White

That's Azzam, Jenna and Harris literally reaching for the stars! 

 

But how did Nicholas Bonne become fascinated enough with the Universe to turn it into a profession?

 

Nicholas

For me growing up, I don't know about the age of 5 I think I I realised that astronomy was something that I was really really interested in.  And I think in my case, it helped that my parents were very supportive and my teachers were really supportive, no one ever said "But your vision impaired, why are you doing this thing?"  I have a tiny tiny bit of vision, so I think I'm sitting on something like 4 or 5% total.  As long as things are right at the end of my nose I can kind of see them, so as long as I've got my head right up against my computer monitor as long as my text is really and the contrast is good and as long as its blown up really big, I can...I can see okay.  I just remember spending a long long time looking at these beautiful images of space, but having to spend a long time and really sort of scanning over the image to get all the details.  And I think of its just it was something that I was really really passionate about, but I think it's something that other people could be as well if they were able to access it.

 

White

And do you know why you were...were...were passionate?  And it still feels and in a way it's interesting that with so little sight as you said, it was something very visual like that that caught your imagination.

 

Nicholas

Yeah I don't...I don't really know, it's hard to...so the very first picture I ever remember seeing in sort of going well was, it was one of the pitches of Neptune that that the Voyager 2 Probe sent back during the 90s or late 80s and it was just the most beautiful sort of striking blue colour and it was so blue that I could see it.  (Laugh) And I think I just remember thinking 'Wow, I've never seen anything that looks like that or that that's colour before' and then I just wanted to know more.  And I think that's the thing about astronomy, there's a lot of a lot of really big questions that we still need to answer and they don't have to be dealt with in a visual way a lot of it is very very conceptual. I broke a lot of very visual parameters down into numbers sort of made really big databases, looked at the statistics of various things, so I kind of got away without using my eyes too much.  But there were....were parts where I had to actually double check that my galaxies were the shapes of the number said they were and I I definitely found that a little bit more complicated, sometimes I need to ask for a bit of help with that. 

 

White

And is working with the children giving you the sort of buzz that you clearly hoped it would?  I mean I'm interested, what kind of things were they saying to you?

 

Nicholas

Well I mean its it's like any cross-section of the the population, so I mean astronomy is good in the sense that its one of those things that are a lot of people find really interesting.  The same with vision impaired kids, so some of those...

 

White

Some do and some don't.

 

Nicholas

Some of them do, some of them don't.  The ones that do are really really enjoying it, I think their their liking the fact that they can interact with this not these images, this data in a different way from everyone else.  It's also giving them a much better sense of of stuff that they've probably heard about in class, but haven't really understood particularly.  And it's been really nice actually, we've gotten feedback from sort of two or three students so far who've basically comeback to us after a couple of sessions and said "Hey, I'm actually thinking of of doing science like I don't want to stop doing science like I was thinking, I I want to keep doing this and maybe I'll do it at university!

 

White

That was Dr. Nicholas Bonne racking up his own Universal Credit, sorry couldn't resist it!

 

Finally, how often has this happened to you?  You've been looking forward to a TV programme, you've settled down to listen and this happens.

 

Clip - Russian speaking.

 

White

Subtitles are on the screen, but there's no spoken translation.  Well we're planning to look into why this happens so often with senior figures in BBC Current Affairs.  If you have questions you'd like to raise with them, let us have them!  You can call our action line for 24hrs after tonight's programme on 0800 044044 you can email intouch@bbc.co.uk or you can onto our website and click on 'contact us' and you can also download tonight's and other additions of In Touch from there. 

That's it from me Peter White, producer Kevin Core and the team, goodbye.

 

 

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