This week it was revealed that the blue badge scheme could be extended to people with hidden disabilities such as dementia and autism. This prompted a response from Dr Jacqui Shepherd, a lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex, whose recent research focuses on young people and autism. She is a member of the National Autistic Society and is a parent of a child with autism and learning disabilities.
“The proposal to include people with autism and dementia under the benefits of blue badges is not before time and hopefully will herald a change in how the scheme is presented and viewed by the wider public.
Being a disabled person means that you are disabled by society in terms of the things that you can and cannot do. Unfortunately it has just come to mean ‘in a wheelchair’ as a shorthand.
Autistic people are disabled by the social world. The extension of the blue badge scheme would mean that we are beginning to make some ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with autism – which is a legal requirement.
It would offer more opportunities to be more socially included and it will inevitably make everyday life easier for people who experience hidden disabilities.
Autism is a spectrum condition so we know that everyone is affected differently and some people may indeed have mobility and co-ordination problems.
A blue badge is currently only associated with ‘mobility’ in the most basic sense of that term and, coupled with the wheelchair logo, we have come to expect that mobility is about either being able to walk or not.
For those with hidden disabilities like autism, a blue badge could be of great benefit to some in that they may have difficulty in walking long distances, may refuse to walk or that they need to be able to park close to their destination.
But for others, and more commonly, the blue badge would enable them to access more places, more safely and with less trauma.
Many autistic children do not have a sense of danger and are therefore likely to get out of cars without looking where they are going; others will experience sensory overload when visiting busy, crowded places such as supermarkets and others will really struggle with waiting in queues for parking spaces to the point that they might try to get out of the car, fling the door wide open without anticipating consequences or exhibit violent behaviour.
For parents with an autistic child as well as other children (or more than one autistic child) it would actually make the difference about leaving the house or not.
There is currently no mechanism for assessing the whole family circumstances as individuals are purely assessed on their mobility – we need to take in to account the family set-up.
Many autistic people struggle to access public transport either because the busy sensory and social environment on trains and buses can be overwhelming, particularly if they have additional learning difficulties.
Some autistic adults can be vulnerable when travelling on public transport as they are more likely to be travelling alone and in a way they can be more vulnerable when travelling alone as other people would not necessarily come to their aid if they were being victimised.
Another helpful step once conditions like autism are included in the scheme, should be to change the current symbol that designates blue badge spaces.
It only serves to pigeonhole what society expects a disabled person to look like when in fact disability is very different to every single person who lives with one.
By moving away from this stereotype, one can hope that a more enlightened and empathetic approach could follow.
Not everyone on the autistic spectrum would need a blue badge, and indeed this could overwhelm the system, as many adults are able to drive and access a wider world anyway but for children and those with additional learning disabilities or co-morbid conditions that affect their mobility then it is essential if we are to start changing perceptions and developing a more inclusive society.
Because of the way the general public views disability, when that person’s condition is “hidden” they receive less empathy and more suspicion around their condition.
Currently councils have discretion as to what “non-physical disabilities” they deem require a blue badge.
This creates a multi-tier system across the country where residents living with autism are treated with more sympathy and understanding in some parts of the country than others.
This is not fair and hopefully will be rectified by the Department of Transport’s clarifying intervention to create a universal standard.
There are naysayers who will argue that including “hidden” disabilities into the eligibility criteria will open up the blue badge system to further fraud from those cynical enough to try and exploit it.
There is no doubt that blue badge fraud continues to exist in the UK despite numerous crackdowns.
But blue badge fraud needs to be addressed in all cases – it is not an argument not to extend its legitimate use to those with hidden disabilities.
The solution is to go after those who wilfully abuse the system, not keep the door closed on potentially hundreds of thousands of people whose lives would be greatly enhanced by being granted a relatively simple privilege.