In an age where first world problems – bad hair days and wardrobe malfunctions – are commonplace, more important concerns can get lost in the daily moans and groans.
In the UK, around one in five of us is disabled, that’s 11 million nationwide, and over a quarter of those suffering from disabilities say they rarely have choice or control over their daily lives.
This reality may be inconceivable to the able-bodied but, given that the number of disabled people in Epsom and Ewell is now over 10,000, a large proportion of the community is affected.
International Day for People with Disabilities last month was a chance to turn the spotlight on disability issues locally and those organisations working to resolve them.
Dorothy Watson, chief executive of The Sunnybank Trust, an innovative Epsom charity working with people with learning disabilities, said: “The public’s understanding of issues of learning disabilities, in particular, has improved but there is still a long way to go as they are still extremely marginalised in our local community.”
“The more people with learning disabilities are put into the community, the more support they need because they are a vulnerable group, and people understanding those daily issues will make the community more responsive and supportive.”
References to ‘barriers’ – by definition an obstacles that prevent access – resonated time and again.
Cliff Bush, chairman of the Surrey Coalition of Disabled People, said: “People expect people to wear their disability on themselves like a badge but a considerable amount of people have mental health problems, which is invisible.
The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised rather than a person’s impairment.
So, if society is the problem rather than the disability, our towns and transport should be redesigned to be universally accessible and the community must be alert to others with needs.
Recently, the Epsom Guardian reported on problems facing the disabled such as damaged pavements and accessibility to Ewell West and Stoneleigh stations and shop access.
In Ewell, Brian Angus, chairman of Ewell Village Residents’ Association, said: “Our village, which some will view as quaint and historic, will have significantly barriers for people who are mobility impaired.
“Some people literally can’t get out of their homes because they can’t make a journey, what price do you put on that?”
The price, according to Stoneleigh’s Councillor Mike Teasdale, of solving certain transport problems, is high and often unaffordable in the short term.
He has been in talks and site meetings with Southwest Trains to obtain step-free access to Stoneleigh railway station.
Councillor Teasdale said: “It’s a long term project because all the funds available to the railway companies for this year and next year are all used up.”
Talking of the Stoneleigh Broadway’s ‘higgledy piggledy’ pavements, he said: “We are not talking about pennies, we are talking about tens of thousands of pounds and everyone’s very pushed.”
The will and effort is there, if you look for it, even if the money is not: there are currently nine Surrey Hubs – local centres providing information and support to help disabled people stay independent.
Caroline Fowler, volunteer development worker at The Hub Epsom, which receives around 250 enquiries per month, said: “A lot of our enquiries tend to be about benefit decisions – many people come in because they haven’t met the criteria for certain benefits that they fitted into a year ago.”
Are these amended criteria now just providing support for the most serious cases while everyone else is allowed to slip through the net?
Austerity cuts are a familiar truth, but less publicised is the closure of the Independent Living Fund, which existed to ease the daily lives of around 18,000 disabled claimants nationwide.
On December 8, the High Court upheld the government’s decision to close the ILF on June 30 this year, when it will be up to cash-strapped councils to provide funding for claimants.
Few, if any, will be able to provide the same level of support.
Councils are already doing what they can to help people with disabilities by funding organisations such as Shopmobility and the Rainbow Leisure Centre in Epsom.
Shopmobility puts six buses on the roads every working day from 8.30am-4pm, taking residents to shops, day centres and offering a ‘dial-a-ride’ service for appointments.
Zoë Ward, the route call administrator, said the service, used mainly by the elderly and wheelchair users, has many regular clients but is not oversubscribed – on weekdays.
She said: “What we are finding hard at the moment is we don’t run a weekend service and many clients ring up asking for the service – but the whole of the council is closed on weekends.”
She said that many would then turn to Age Concern, an independent Epsom charity.
At the Rainbow Leisure Centre on East Street, which held an open day for disabled people on Sunday, Karen Wilson, a disabled fitness instructor, is on placement as part of the Instructability programme, doing outreach to get disabled people in the community active.
She said: “You can’t really generalise – everyone’s position is very different.
“The barriers that disabled people have to access the gym cross all sorts of areas – if you’re blind you might have trouble finding it, if they have a nervous disposition they can’t get through the door and if they are obese they might be self-conscious.
“It’s my role to get people into the gym so they have a friendly face when they get there.”
Ms Wilson has been living with Multiple Sclerosis for over 20 years but has worked for Boris Johnson and completed university qualifications and a triathlon.
She feels the root of the solution is accessibility.
Money is, of course, vital but, even though that is in short supply at present, the appreciation that everyone’s situation is unique, and not necessarily outwardly obvious or simply solved, can really help find real solutions for real people.