A disabled woman was barred from a tribunal to decide whether she was entitled to benefits – because she was in a wheelchair. Sylvia Middleton, 65, was turned away by security staff in case a fire broke out in the five-storey building. It later emerged that wheelchair users have been denied entry to Acorn House in Basildon, Essex, for three months over the misplaced health and safety concerns. They included others attending disability tribunals and workers attempting to visit offices in the mixed-use block.
‘They said they couldn’t guarantee my safety and they didn’t let my wheelchair upstairs,’ said Miss Middleton, who was summoned to the fourth-floor hearing by the Department for Work and Pensions to be reassessed for Disability Living Allowance.
‘Why are they holding disability tribunals in a building disabled people aren’t allowed in?’
Divorcée Miss Middleton has been without her £50-a-week payments since December 2011 when they were suspended after an ‘administration error’.
She has been managing on her £140-a-week pension in her two-bedroom bungalow in Pitsea, Essex, while waiting for the benefit to be reinstated.
After she and her son, Peter, were refused entry on February 2 she was told she would have to wait another two months for her case to be heard – this time 12 miles away in Southend.
Apology: This is a letter which was sent to Ms Middleton by the tribunals service
The mother of two developed crippling arthritis in her knees, neck and back after a 30-year career as a factory worker.
‘What angers me is that I am not one of those people who wants to sponge off the state,’ she said.
‘I have been working since the age of 15 – I had my two children and went straight back to work.
‘I got a job packing boxes but my arthritis got so bad I couldn’t stand up any more. I was assessed and the doctor said I needed help.’
Other wheelchair-bound people who have been banned from the building include office worker Paul Peterson, 33.
He said: ‘I was a bit taken aback because I’ve worked here for 11 years and spent at least eight of them on the first floor.
‘A security guard told me I wasn’t allowed upstairs because they needed to build an external lift to evacuate people in wheelchairs in the event of a fire.
‘I thought that was a bit odd because they always tell you not to use lifts if there’s a fire.
‘We’ve actually got an evacuation chair right next to my desk in case there’s a fire,’ he added.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service yesterday admitted there had been a mistake.
A spokesman said: ‘Due to a misinterpretation of health and safety legislation by a security contractor a limited number of users with mobility issues have wrongly been refused entry.
‘We have taken immediate action to ensure that this does not happen again and we apologise to those affected.
‘Full access to the tribunal is now being facilitated for users with mobility issues.’
The spokesman added a written apology had been sent to Miss Middleton – although she complained the date and venue for her rescheduled appointment had not been changed.
Employers and service providers have been required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to aid access to goods, services, education and transport since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.