Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Blue badge applications for hidden disabilities: is the scheme working?

Darren Devine

Lesley Staines’ son Lewis is autistic and has a learning disability with no awareness of cars that means he cannot cross the road safely. She says her 5ft 8ins tall 18 stone son would attack her if she tried to prevent him getting across the road.

The mum-of-two, from Romford, in the London borough of Havering, fought long and hard for a blue badge for her son and had to secure multiple letters from professionals to back her case.

This is despite the fact that in 2019 the government announced those with autism and mental health conditions would soon benefit from the blue badge parking scheme.

The changes were designed to ensure the system better recognised the needs of people with hidden disabilities. But Staines says the new system is a “complete joke” and no better than the one it replaced. She insists she applied for a badge just months after the change in the law, but still saw her application rejected.

Overwhelming psychological distress criteria

Her other son Mitchell also has autism and a learning disability and has qualified for both a Motability car and a blue badge without encountering the same obstacles.  While Mitchell, 25, is still in nappies, Lewis, who his mother says has the mental age of a two to three-year-old, has slightly more understanding and speaks in single words. Both brothers have epilepsy and are non-verbal.

Staines says her sons are on different sets of benefits because Lewis, 23, was moved over to the personal independence payment (PIP) after it was introduced to replace disability living  allowance (DLA).

Under the PIP rules people with hidden disabilities only qualify for a badge if they “cannot undertake any journey because it would cause overwhelming psychological distress”. Assessors suggested Lewis did not meet this description.

Staines, 60, says it was the letters from professionals, like her GP, that eventually got her a badge for Lewis and securing it was completely unconnected to the change in the law.

Blue badge campaigner Lesley Staines
Blue badge campaigner Lesley Staines with her sons Lewis and Mitchell

She said, “I’ve only got it because my local authority agreed with me that he does need this badge and I’ve had to get all these professional letters, which I’ll have to get all over again when it expires at the end of two years or three years, whatever it is.

“And yet my other son, because he’s still on DLA and he has high rate indefinite mobility, gets an automatic badge.”

How does the Blue badge scheme work?

Those with physical disabilities have long benefited from the blue badge scheme that allows people to park closer to their destination, including on double yellow lines. Blue Badge holders travelling either as a driver or passenger can park for free in disabled bays and the permit can be used in any car you are travelling in at any time, including taxis.

The government argued the 2019 reform was the most significant change to the blue badge scheme since the 1970s. The policy change was designed to ensure the scheme would include people who “cannot walk as part of a journey without considerable psychological distress or the risk of serious harm”.

It was also focused on helping those who ”experience very considerable difficulty”. The policy move was designed to bolster efforts for parity of treatment between physical and mental health.

Then minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson said those with hidden disabilities were facing “unacceptable discrimination or even abuse when using disabled parking spaces”.

But it was made clear that while the change would bring “consistent guidelines” not everyone with a hidden disability would qualify and it would still be up to councils to decide who gets a badge.

No radical change in policy for autistic people

Charities like the National Autistic Society (NAS) had long campaigned for the change to help relieve pressure on families facing challenges that left them isolated. In reality, it is not clear that the policy shift was ever really the radical change that the headlines suggested.

Councils already had powers to give badges to those with hidden disabilities and a change in the law was only necessary because some refused to.

The Department for Transport (DfT) points to statistics showing that since the scheme was extended more people with hidden disabilities seem to have benefited.

An additional 70,000 badges have been issued for people with hidden disabilities, the numbers rose by 26,000 in March 2020, 18,000 a year later and a further 26,000 last year.

All told, in the year ending March 2022 just over a million blue badges were issued with 2.5 per cent of the total going to people with hidden disabilities.

Accessibility Minister Richard Holden said, “We know that, for many people, not being able to find a suitable parking space can make getting around a real challenge. I’m pleased to see the extension of our blue badge scheme is making a real difference to the lives of thousands of people with non-visible disabilities across the country.”

But though this points to an improving picture, it’s unclear how far the additional badges issued to people with hidden disabilities can be attributed directly to the policy change.

Given that councils already had the power to give them to people with hidden disabilities before 2019, some, almost certainly, would have been doing so.

The DfT says it does not hold statistics on the numbers given to people with hidden disabilities  in the run up to the change, ie 2016, 2017 and 2018. Also, it could be argued that as a proportion of the overall number of badges issued in 2022, the 2.5 per cent that went to people with hidden disabilities remains vanishingly small.

Natalie Mackenzie, director of brain injuries rehabilitation group The BIS Services, said there is “some way to go” before people with hidden disabilities get parity of treatment on blue badges.

Mackenzie said those with brain injuries would find it “incredibly overwhelming” to apply for a badge and are likely to avoid it even where they need one.

She said, “Many of these individuals may understand and acknowledge their own mobility issues, if there are any present, but the cognitive deficits are often difficult to recognise in oneself.”

Mackenzie added that while some may “perform well under testing” or on ”criteria-based assessments” it remains the case that  “day-to-day they struggle greatly”.

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