Opinion: Token gesture is a betrayal of the interests of people with disabilities

Mary Langan wants parks made acccessible for the disabled during lockdown.

Mary Langan wants parks made acccessible for the disabled during lockdown. - Credit: Archant

One of the first actions taken by Haringey Council on the introduction of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown in March was the closure of parking facilities at Finsbury and Markfield Parks.

Mary Langan. Picture: Luke Dixon

Mary Langan. Picture: Luke Dixon - Credit: Archant

This provoked immediate protests from families of people with disabilities in the borough.

Finsbury Park is a well-used destination for people with physical and learning disabilities, mental health problems and autism. Every week many attend Pedal Power, a cycling group for people with disabilities, which has now been suspended. Markfield Park is popular with families who attend the nearby Markfield Centre which provides a range of services for children and families. Though these parks are still accessible on foot, people with learning and physical disabilities, who are usually brought by their care workers by car, are now excluded from them.

Martin Hewitt, parent of an adult son with autism and severe learning disabilities, and a local campaigner for adult social care services, says that people like his son are ‘now confined to their homes, which is unhealthy for them, their family carers and support workers.’ As he points out, the council’s policy ‘treats people with and without disabilities unequally – in defiance of the. Equalities Act which requires the council to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities’.

In response to representations from Martin and other parents and carers, the Council finally agreed – six weeks later – to open Finsbury Park to Blue Badge card holders between 1pm and 2.30pm, seven days a week. This sounded like progress, but in practice little has changed.

When I tried to enter the park last weekend I was confronted with an intimidating barrage of barriers and notices declaring that the park was closed to all vehicles. There was no notice indicating the new arrangements for allowing access to people with disabilities. Indeed, the council website, which offers detailed instructions on changes to official policy on ‘social distancing’ provides no information on the new terms for limited disabled access.

When I found a park official, I learnt the policy was to have a member of staff available to unlock the gates and step down the barricades at 1:00pm. The gates would be unlocked again at 2:30pm when vehicles would be allowed to leave. As Martin Hewitt told me, this arrangement ‘takes no account of the particular needs of people with physical and learning disabilities. For example some autistic users may have unpredictable anxiety attacks at any time, leading to outbursts of challenging behaviour that may need the person to be taken by his support workers immediately to his car and driven home’.

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Haringey’s token gesture is a betrayal of the interests of people with disabilities in the borough. The council seems to have greater enthusiasm for fencing off picnic tables and play areas than it has for providing some respite for families who are experiencing intense pressures as a result of the lockdown and the suspension of a wide range of day opportunities. Notices on the park gates provide detailed instructions for dog walkers. It seems that they have a higher priority in Haringey than people with disabilities.

• Mary Langan is chairwoman, Severe and Complex Autism and Learning Disabilities Reference Group (SCALD)