There’s clearly a lot of anger and anxiety in the Deaf community and the “interpreting world” about changes to Access to Work (ATW) policy. It’s had plenty of recent debate, criticism and activism, so I don’t need to repeat all that here.
But there is a train of other welfare reforms chugging up the line in a storm of acronyms, which get less publicity and spleen but with equally important consequences for Deaf citizens and maybe the professionals that work with them. Quite apart from the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the introduction of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), as well as incoming changes to university students’ Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), we are about to enter the era of the Local Offer, the end of Special Educational Need (SEN) Statements and the introduction of Education, Health & Care (EHC) Plans under the new Children & Families Act. The government minister for children recently wrote to parents, teachers and colleges about these reforms.
If you work in education or social services or healthcare settings and have any kind of contact with the parents of disabled children and young people, or if you’ve read their stories online, you’ll be aware of the continual loops of explanation they have to re-traverse with monotonous regularity. Not being a parent, I can barely imagine the frustration and fatigue of having to explain the same thing again and again to an ever-changing cast of professionals, of repeatedly taking two steps forward and then 1-3 steps back, of having your opinions and experiences continually questioned and twisted. Triple that frustration if you need support from each of the different domains of education, health and social care, who do not share information with each other (or sometimes even with themselves) and can have radically different mindsets and methods. The decades must just fly by.
This common experience seems to have been the primary engine of the various Single Assessment Process (SAP) reforms for both adults and children, perhaps with a little of the social care “personalisation agenda” sprinkled on top. The theories of SAP and personalisation are attractive and were rigorously campaigned for by the disability community for years: my understanding of the discourse that led to it is as follows. If a young person has a disability which affects their opportunities to learn, to participate in society (at large and in microcosm) and to live a comfortable and relatively healthy life – most disabilities will have consequences in several or all of those areas, to varying extents – who does it benefit for them to be continually assessed and re-assessed by different professionals, depending on the setting? Why aren’t public services more “joined up”, why the arbitrary division between health, education and care? Furthermore, should parents and young people simply accept what is handed to them by a local authority – why can’t they be directly involved in picking and choosing what kind of support they get? Aren’t disabled people experts in their own needs? You can shop for a hundred different burgers, why can’t you shop for your support workers, PAs, CSWs, deafblind communicator guides? Hence the nascent birth of the Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan.
But as Aesop said, “We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified”. Local authorities are (with varying speed and success rates) moving those in receipt of social care packages away from direct council funding and council-appointed providers, and giving disabled people a “personal budget” which they can use to purchase and manage their own support. Strangely enough, the “personal budget” can be considerably less than the budget set aside in their former care packages, despite their conditions and resulting needs remaining the same or getting worse. There is a convincing argument which holds that the disability movement’s campaigns for the last couple of decades have only been granted because it was an opportunity too good to miss: another handy mechanism for slashing welfare budgets. In addition, the support workers and professional carers themselves are likely to become freelancers or sessional staff when they are transitioned into working directly for disabled people, if they weren’t already: they can probably expect a lower rate of pay and there will be no pesky burdens for the state like supervision, pensions, training, sick pay, holiday pay, unionisation and so forth. Might sound familiar to any interpreter funded exclusively by ATW: support is disposable.
This may be a cynical view, but perhaps this is now coming to education as well. Instead of having a Statement of SEN and then other separate interventions in the health and social services domains, young people will have a single assessment – the EHC – which will determine the support they get from all three, but with education being the “trigger” for an assessment. Local councils will be obliged to publish a “Local Offer”, a list of the services it “expects to be available” in the borough or county to young disabled people with additional learning needs. I think the intention here is openness and transparency, but is also informed by the inherently consumerist ideology that shopping can solve any problem: you would be free to check what is available in neighbouring areas. Parents of young deaf and disabled people will know what support is available in schools and colleges before they get there, in theory. But that support does not have to be council-provided and central government’s ambitions here are clear: there may well be no public sector social services at all in ten years’ time. Also, the Local Offer is arguably toothless: councils are obliged to publish it but not obliged to provide anything in it to any individual.
These measures will start to take force in September 2014. So what is the medium- and long-term future for deaf kids in mainstream schools and colleges (a quarter of whom currently have a Statement), and for the Teachers of the Deaf, CSWs and interpreters who are instrumental in that future? The simple answer is that no-one seems to know despite it all starting up in scant months. I’ve been to Pathfinder briefing sessions (Pathfinders are local authorities who are involved in piloting and creating the new EHC systems) and sensory disabilities were not mentioned once in any of them. The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) are, as ever, leading the field in finding out what will happen to the education of deaf children and keeping parents informed, and even they have largely drawn a blank about what is actually going to happen in terms of change and the details of the new provision.
Speaking purely about my own erratic career, working in education is the one area I can be confident that I am working directly for the community, with automatic supervision and professional development opportunities mandated by my employer, and rampant profiteering reined in. Will that still be true when I’m part of the Local Offer? A trivial number of qualified interpreters are members of the CSW workforce – they tend to leave it as soon as they qualify, and then also tend to criticise those CSWs who stayed, for not being good enough to do the job they themselves walked away from. Will these reforms further polarise that situation or is it an opportunity for change and development?
No-one knows; few people are asking these questions.
Updated (23/4/2014): For a description of tardiness, ambiguity and broken promises in the introduction of these reforms, see IPSEA’s excellent blog. For the new reality of the impact of funding changes, see this article in the Guardian by a primary school head teacher.