‘…………..By Vicky Allan, Senior features writer
Parents of children with autism and Down’s Syndrome say Westminster is victimising their families by removing their right to use disabled parking spaces as a result of austerity cuts.
Campaigners now want Holyrood to intervene. Westminster austerity cuts mean most children with autism and Down’s no longer qualify for the higher rate of mobility allowance, which automatically triggers the issuing of a blue badge for disabled parking spaces.
Owain Martin, who is the father of an autistic child, said this means carers are now having to walk long distances with disabled children. Families say some of their children can be prone to running off, having sudden “meltdowns” due to sensory overload or have learning difficulties which make it difficult for them to appreciate danger.
He has now launched a petition to the Scottish Government calling for Holyrood to act following the loss of his son’s blue badge.
The new qualification criteria means if a child can walk for 40 metres they are no longer eligible for the higher rate mobility allowance element of disability living allowance (DLA) – but campaigners say this does not take into account that many children with autism or Down’s need constant assistance to make sure they are safe.
Martin said the changes mean nine-year-old Theo is now far more at risk on regular long journeys to and from his Edinburgh home.
He said: “We now have to park our car often some distance away, instead of in a disabled bay just outside.
“Although Theo can walk the stipulated 40 metres that means you don’t qualify for higher rate mobility, he has to be held by the hand at all times.
“If he’s having a bad day and he’s in a bad mood, if he slips out of your hand he’ll just run across the road.
“Theo is severely autistic. He’s nine and he can’t talk and he’s still in nappies. His behaviour is pretty good unless he has a meltdown, and you never know when that might happen.
“Even though he’s really well behaved, you have to hold onto him the whole time, because if you turn round for a second, he’ll be off, like a whippet.”
He added: “No one is disputing the fact that autistic and Down’s children are capable of walking huge distances – it’s purely personal safety grounds that they need this on.
“A lot of these kids can walk, but a lot of them have got sensory overload issues, where noise and sound can send them into a meltdown.
“This is all part and parcel of the government’s welfare reforms, which I’m totally frustrated with. It just feels like they’re totally victimising the weakest.”
The law has been changed in Wales to ensure that anyone “with a mental disorder who is unable to follow the route of a familiar journey without the assistance of another person” automatically qualifies for a blue badge. Campaigners and parents like Martin want to see similar changes introduced in Scotland.
Labour MSP Duncan McNeil is also backing changes to the blue badge rules. He tabled a motion on the subject in the Scottish Parliament when he heard the story Aiden McLevy, of Greenock, who has Down’s Syndrome.
“Aiden has low muscle tone and sensory awareness,” said McNeil. “He often trips or refuses to walk and sits down on the pavement. He has a lack of safety awareness and is unpredictable and dangerous in car parks.
“The law needs to change. In its current form it is discriminating against people with Down’s Syndrome and autism who are under the age of 16.
“The Scottish Government consulted last year on amending the legislation. There was overwhelming support for doing so but nothing has happened yet. It is behind the curve on this.”
McNeil hopes, in early September, to secure a members’ debate in order to keep the pressure on the Scottish Government.
“Rectifying the law would give these children and their families that extra bit of support they desperately need,” he added.
“It is important to note that many children and young people with Down’s Syndrome can walk but still present a danger to themselves and others because of little or no awareness of danger from traffic. Moreover many remain unable to follow a familiar journey on their own.”
It is not only children with autism and Down’s who are struggling to get blue badges for parking.
Ian Hood, co-ordinator of Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, said the changes had also affected people with other mental health issues and learning disabilities, including some adults.
“More and more people are being affected by this,” he said. “We know many people who need two members of staff when they are out in public to keep them safe or stop them running out into the road. The closer they can park to a venue or shop, the better. And isn’t that what blue badges are for?”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said decisions about eligibility for a blue badge were made by local authorities with the Scottish Government providing the “overarching legislative and policy framework for the scheme.”
He added: “Recent reforms to the scheme mean the criteria focuses on an applicant’s mobility.
“The group is studying evidence on potentially extending the eligibility criteria for the blue badge scheme to include people, who as a result of a ‘diagnosed mental disorder’, have little or no awareness of danger from traffic.” …………’