Thursday, 24 November 2011

Disability Discrimination Part 4

Once I realised that writing letters to the company was taking me round and round in circles, the next stage was to get a bit stroppy.  This is the 'Letter before Action' stage.  Basically you set out your position, and tell them to hand this letter to their insurers.  You then given them a set period of time - usually seven days from the date of this letter - otherwise you will commence proceedings without further notice. 

I did this, and waited.  On the seventh day (because these companies love their brinkmanship games) a letter arrived by special delivery.  It stated that the insurers said they were not liable, and enclosed £100 worth of gift vouchers. 

I sent them back.  There was no way I would ever set foot in that store again even if hell froze over.  And gift vouchers were a bloody cheek because essentially they were trying to force me to shop with them again.  No way.

With my covering letter returning the vouchers I advised them to get new insurers who actuallly understood the legal obligations.  And then I went online to start finding out what I needed to do. 

Firstly, you need the small claims court.  This deals with claims up to £5000 in value.  You start proceedings usually in the town where the incident happened and if you are suing a company you must give the address of their registered office. There is plenty of advice about this on the internet - but go to the horse's mouth and use the official websites.  You can also download the forms you need to complete.

A word of warning about the forms, you cannot save them although you can fill them in on the computer.  You will need three copies  for the court - one is kept by the court, one is served on the defendant and the other is returned to you. 

There is a fee - but if you are in receipt of certain benefits this is waived.  So do check everything out and don't be afraid to phone the court if you're not sure.  I'm not putting links on this blog because forms and advice change so quicklly.  But it is very easy to find.

And then you wait.  The defendant has a set time to respond and and acknowledge receipt.  If they don't then you enter judgement and automatically win your case.  In my case, the defendant waited a while and then acknowledge receipt, after which there was a further period within which they had to put in their defence.

I was, to be honest, looking forward to this.  I really wanted to see how they were going to try and defend the indefensible.  They didn't.  Shortly before the deadline someone from the company actually phoned to try and 'sort things out.'

This was a definite improvement.  But of course, most of us are not used to negotiating like this, and it's easy to feel forced to back off in a way that we don't feel when we're writing letters.  It's very important to stick to your guns and realise that you are in the driving seat here. You still have the 'adverse publicity' card tucked in your sleeve (which is why I said not to use it earlier).  No firm wants bad publicity... and of course the court is open to the public, which means that once things go to a hearing you cannot stop bad publicity.  (Admittedly journalists don't usually attend small claims hearings, but they can if they want to and if you invite them to....- that's a very important bargaining chip!)

I'll deal with how to handle phone calls and negotiate in my next post.  Remember - we are not helpless.  People just like us to think that we are. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Disability Discrimination - part 3

Of course it's all very well to end a post with 'It's time to fight back.'  But how do we actually do it?  How do we get some kind of justice when nobody is willing to help? 

Our greatest strength is realising that we are on our own.  Forget all the internet solicitors who advertisse No Win No Fee or that they will fight disability discrimination.  Like the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission), they too cherry pick what they will and will not handle.  Indeed one solicitor advised me to go to arbitration as it was 'the only way' and refused to handle my case 'because it wouldn't bring in enough money for the firm.' 

Even firms that HAVE handled high profile disability discrimination cases in the past, only seem to be interested if there is some union involvement.  And if like me, you are a lone shopper, that makes you feel cut adrift, like a small sailor in an even smaller lifeboat. 

One important thing to remember is that you have only sixth months from the date of the alleged discrimination to take the matter to court.  So, for the time being, I continued writing letters to the parent company of the shop in question.    They never disputed what I claimed, and offered first £25 in gift vouchers and then £50.  At the same time there seemed to be very little understanding of what the disability discrimination legislation meant.

Disabled customers are, first and foremost, customers.  They should therefore be valued.  They spend money.  You cannot treat them like perverts and lesser beings and seriously expect them to return bearing gift vouchers and wagging their tails. 

But - as I had already found - nobody wanted to know.  Nobody wanted to help - not even the people whose job it apparently was to deal with such cases. 

So - what to do next?

Well, my first advice is NEVER go to the press.  Not at this stage.  Adverse publicity is a very useful tool, but you have to know when to choose it.  It is definitely best held back as a bargaining chip.  And of course, you have to be prepared to go the whole distance. 

I suspect that there is a lot of bluff on the part of these big businesses.  They know that most people won't pursue the matter.  Therefore they can get away with it.  By this stage it wasn't just about what had happened to me, it was about what would happen to other disabled customers if I didn't take a stand. 

Nobody was listening properly.  I had to do something.  The courts seemed to be my only option. 

In my next post I am going to take you through it step by step.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Disability Discrimination - part 2

So... what to do?  The first thing you discover in a situation like this is that nobody wants to know.  And I mean nobody.  My first stop was the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.  I mean, that's their job, isn't it?  So I phoned up several times, and asked for help.  I could, I was told, arrange for mediation if the other side agreed.  The arbitrator would make recommendations but these weren't binding.  Given how I had been treated so far, anything that wasn't as binding as a length of anchor chain was a definite no-no.  I asked whether the EHRC could support me in taking the case to Court.  'They are very choosy about which cases they handle.'

That's right.  The body of bureaucrats set up to help people like me in situations like this are very choosy.  Well, good for them.  That's lovely to know.  They aren't actually interested in justice per se.  They can afford to cherry pick.

I began reading everything I could find online.  I had been discriminated against, that was certain.  I wanted a proper apology, and so far all I had received was a letter that made it clear that disabled people were totally reliant upon the 'initiative' of whoever happened to be working in the shop at the time. 

Well it's not good enough.  Shops etc.have an anticipatory duty to look ahead and work out what might be required by a disabled person.  Needing help in a changing room isn't rocket science.  Many women take their partners into shops with them when they're buying clothes.  It's hardly unfathomable that some of them will need help.  And why can't they have help from a male partner?

So - I went back to the shop again.  This time I set out my position, explaining:

As things stand, no, I do not have the confidence to visit your store again because I do not think you really understand what has happened here.  How can you write of ‘any necessary retraining action’ when you do not seem to appreciate what it is you are retraining staff to do?  I don't think any of them had ever heard of disability discrimination, or if they had, they clearly felt it was something that actually operated against the disabled person.  They certainly were not aware of requirements to avoid disability discrimination, and from your reply today I am not entirely sure that you understand it either.

As time progressed I began to realised how the disabled are really discriminated against - not just by shops but even abandoned by the very bodies that were set up to help them.  It's disgusting.  It's demoralising.  And it got worse.
And this is why I am recounting the whole sorry saga, blow by blow, because I want people to realise that they don't have to lie down and take this.  They shouldn't lie down and let these big firms get away with it.  It's time to fight back.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

disablity discrimination - trying to get justice

People often think that not discriminating against disabled people means they are getting an unfair advantage.  'Why should a disabled person have a blue badge in order to park near the supermarket?  They look perfectly fine to me...'
And that of course is the main part of the problem.  Everyone is an expert.  Everyone can tell, just by looking for a few moments, whether or not someone is ill, sick or disabled.

Except they can't.  Even doctors have taken years to get anywhere near a diagnosis for my problems, and the book is still open on that one.    So don't presume you can look at me and decide what is wrong.  You will only see me on a good day.  On bad days (and there are many of those) you will not see me at all because I will not be able to leave the house.  In fact, I am lucky if I can get out of bed.

Anyway, the whole purpose of equality legislation is to allow disabled people the same opportunities as everyone else to get on with their lives.  To shop, for example.  That's where my particular problem started.

Shops often forget that disabled people are their customers too.  They may provide a nice large disabled changing room, and then not understand that you need help in order to use it.  And in my case - horror of horrors! - my helper was my husband.  A man.

I've set out the whole sorry saga here.  

What happened next was quite an education.  You see, as I've mentioned before, one of the greatest weapons that governments use against people is ignorance.  People assume that because there is disability legislation in place that it will automatically kick in when something like this happens.  The fact is - it doesn't.  If you want justice, you have to go and fight for it.  And when you're feeling like me, that's often the last thing you feel like.

Anyway, I wrote off to the shop in question, and explained what had happened.  Their reply was pretty incredible:

I was deeply concerned to learn of the incident that occurred following your recent visit to our Cardiff store and I can only apologise for any inconvenience this has caused for you and your husband.

I have discussed this matter in full with the Store Manager. She has advised me that it not the usual policy to let males enter the fitting room area while they are waiting for their partner or friend. However, under certain circumstances, if a customer requests for them to assist in the fitting room, our staff should use their initiative and make allowances to accommodate them.

Now this was from the store's Customer Service department at their head office.  I can accept that an individual shop assistant may not have known what was what legally, or may have had a particular beef against portly old ladies with walking sticks, but I do not accept that Customer Services really had not heard of the relevant legislation.  Staff are not required to use their initiative or make allowances.  They are required to ensure that the disabled customer is not discriminated against, that they have the same opportunities as a non-disabled customer.

So... where next?  Watch this space.  It's going to take several posts to tell it all. 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Nothing's really changed....

Years ago, back in the 1970s there was some effort made to try and get an extra benefit for blind people, to take into account that they would never be able to drive and would incur extra expense with taxis, etc., because public transport was erratic, expensive and often didn't take them where they needed to go anyway.  However successive governments never even made a move to do anything about this.  Those who were campaigning were incensed - how could politicians just ignore such a need?

The answer came, not from a politician, but from a television programme which sent a few journalists out to interview people.  It discovered that most people believed that the registered blind already received a special benefit, along, some said, with free televisions.    The government didn't need to do anything because only a 'few' people wanted it; the remainder assumed they already had it.

I see a lot of parallels today.  The disabled don't need help, we are told, because stores, offices etc are already eager to help them.  They have made allowances, installed lifts etc.  Well, some have.  Some still haven't.  Some don't want to and never will.  Some install disabled changing rooms and then put staff in charge who make it impossible for the disabled to actually use them....  and on it goes.

I am currently in the midst of a disability discrimination claim against a large - very large - retail chain.  The level of discrimination and sheer incompetence - which I will describe fully when it is finally settled - is staggering.  A recent survey by the Leonard Cheshire Foundation found that only 2% of people who suffer descrimination ever take it further.

Guess what?  I'm one of that 2%. 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Getting Red Arrows....

I've always believed it is important to challenge sloppy journalism.  So I often comment on posts that really should never have got past their editor.    You know the sort of thing I mean, articles that spew out poor facts or made up facts or which basically judge a person on trial before a verdict comes in.

Lately I've been getting lots of red arrows, just for writing the truth.  But then the truth is a funny old thing, isn't it?  People don't really like the truth - they pay lip service to it, of course, but they don't like it.  Sometimes they even shoot the messenger.

Well, in certain newspapers, those that spew out prodigious amounts of lies and nonsense, I take the red arrow badge as a mark of honour.  I stood up for the truth and the best they could do was to try and mark me down.

Will I give up though?

Don't be silly. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Living in the Real World

Politicians have to make decisions that affect the lives of others every day.  That's part of their job.  And sometimes such decisions will be unpopular.  But at the very least, those affected by the decisions have the right to expect that those making them will have some idea what they are doing.  Not so with cuts to disability benefits however.

Today in the Daily Mail we read how Mr Cameron is hiring a personal trainer to help him deal with stiff muscles and joints.

This trainer is apparently costing our intrepid leader £250 per hour.  PER HOUR.  That's pretty close to the amount paid per month to someone claiming DLA at the highest rate for mobility (and you need more than stiff muscles and joints to qualify for that) and the lowest level of care.  Imagine.... one hour against a whole month.  Better still, take time to do some maths here.  If that trainer worked just 8 hours a day, five days a week for four weeks it would be £10,000!  Staggering stuff, eh?

Yet this government has presided over - and encouraged with all its 'government sources' leaks - the most shameful villification of the sick and disabled in living history.  Even though DLA is given to those who can work (as well as those who cannot) it is to be replaced by a personal independence payment.

Think about it.  Personal Independence Payment.  Well, it all depends what you mean by independence, really, doesn't it?  Because the sort of independence one can buy on £275 per month is quite different from the sort of independence you might expect for £250 per hour.

We're all in it together?  Live in the real world, Dave.