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'No plans to reinstate' transport schemes for disabled people that activists say are 'vital'

The Motorised Transport Grant and Mobility Allowance schemes remain closed after a review was recommended over eight years ago.

The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as a wheelchair user boarding a bus.

“ACCESS IS FAR more than a ramp or a lift. They are shutting [disabled] people in by not ensuring they have the funds needed to access transport.”

Transport activist Suzy Byrne says that the removal of both an allowance and a grant which gave transport support to disabled people has had a hugely detrimental effect, noting “there are many people [for] whom public transport is not possible for a variety of reasons”.  

The removal of the Mobility Allowance and the Motorised Transport Grant has “further impoverished” the poorest disabled people, Byrne said. 

The Mobility Allowance was a monthly payment for those unable to walk or use public transport, while the Transport Grant was a lump-sum payment to help purchase or adapt a car.  

The Government closed these schemes in 2013 following an Ombudsman recommendation that both should be revised to adhere to the Equal Status Acts. Removal of the age limit on the Mobility Allowance and a broader definition of disability were recommended.

This was supposed to be a short-term measure, according to disability organisations and activists. However, eight years later, “there are no plans to reinstate these schemes”, a spokesperson for the Department of Health (DOH) told Noteworthy.

A replacement, the Transport Support Scheme, was recommended and worked on since, but when asked if this is still going ahead, the DOH spokesperson said that “work is ongoing on the policy proposals on transport supports for people with disabilities” and included a number of “recent developments that will impact on the policy options”.

The same answer was provided by the spokesperson when Noteworthy queried this DOH response and asked once again whether a replacement scheme was still on the cards. 

Background image of project design image -  a wheelchair user approaching steps, signifying lack of accessibility - with an extract of a letter to the Taoiseach’s Office from a recipient of the Mobility Allowance in June 2020 - obtained by FOI. Extract - I am worried for my future. I live with a disability in rural Ireland… Without my mobility allowance, I would be completely locked inside my home. I can’t imagine anything worse. Source: Department of the Taoiseach via FOI Request

Byrne said it was “ridiculous” that people are now resorting to fundraising for transport costs. 

A quick search of GoFundMe, the crowdfunding site often used for causes such as these, shows thousands have been raised by a number of ongoing fundraisers in Ireland with goals between €20,000 and €60,000 for the purchase of accessible cars and vans for disabled adults and children.

“We shouldn’t be in a situation where the most basic rights of mobility are the subject of fundraising campaigns.” 

***

At Noteworthy, we’ve investigated accessibility of public transport over the past few months. Disabled people and activists we spoke to felt the cost of transport and lack of support for this was an issue not being addressed by the Government. We can now reveal:

  • There are no plans to reinstate the Mobility Allowance and Motorised Transport Grant, and it is unclear if any replacement is on the cards.
  • Interim options were available to keep the scheme that the Government “chose not to take”, according to the Disability Federation of Ireland.
  • A replacement scheme and accompanying legislation were “at an advanced stage” in 2017, yet never reached the Oireachtas floor.
  • The cost of the interim Mobility Allowance payment being paid to those in receipt of the scheme when it was closed has fallen by €2.3m since 2013.

This is the third part in the LIFT OUT series of articles by Noteworthy on public transport accessibility which will finish next weekend. Part one found disabled people were ‘on tenterhooks’ trying to access taxis and, last week, part two examined a €2.7m transport training centre causing conflict in the disability community. 

***

Transport ‘still completely limited’

“The Mobility Allowance and Motorised Transport Grant were put in place in 1979 and 1968 respectively for operation by the Health Service Executive (HSE) at a time when there was limited availability of accessible public transport,” according to the DOH spokesperson.

However, despite some improvements to public transport in recent years Vicky Matthew told Noteworthy that the services available to her are “still completely limited”. Two years ago, she campaigned to get an accessible bus to bring her from Ballyshannon in Donegal to Sligo IT so that she could attend college.

Though accessible buses are now in place, they run only three times a day at times that are often inconvenient, remain inaccessible at most bus stops on the route and must be booked 24 hours in advance.

This means that Matthew doesn’t have “freedom of choice when using public transport”. She often requires a lift from friends to attend activities such as wheelchair basketball as otherwise she would miss the bus.

Disability activist Vicky Matthew - wheelchair user wearing sunglasses, a bright top with white trousers - outside a Bus Éireann office which has a ramp leading to its door. Vicky Matthew, who had to campaign for an accessible bus, says public transport won't meet her needs. Source: Vicky Matthew

Matthew is finishing her degree in Sports and Business next year and said her problem will be trying to access transport “to get employment to buy a car”. Relying on Disability Allowance for income, she said that a car loan is not an option.

“The biggest hurdle for many people to access employment is transport to get to your job. Public transport, for me personally, won’t meet my needs.”

The Motorised Transport Grant was a means-tested HSE payment “to enable a person with a severe disability to purchase or adapt a car where that car is essential to retain employment”, according to the Government statement when closing the scheme.

More than 300 people received this grant every year, which had a cap of €5,020, at an estimated cost of €1.3m. No one has received it since the last applications were processed in 2013.

A scheme for disabled drivers and passengers still in place offers VRT and VAT relief with maximum amounts varying from €10,000 for disabled drivers to €22,000 for extensively adapted vehicles. However, disabled people and their carers still have to pay the remaining cost of the vehicle and only those who have a valid Primary Medical Certificate can apply.

“To qualify for a Primary Medical Certificate an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled,” according to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe in a recent response to a parliamentary question (PQ). He explained that due to a Supreme Court decision on this last year, interim legislation was put in place at the start of this year and a review of it is underway.

Obtaining this certificate is “problematic”, according to Byrne, who said she was aware of amputees who were unable to get it, and because of that, could not get any relief on vehicle adaptations needed.

Impact on independence 

James Cawley from Independent Living Movement Ireland - wheelchair user wearing a white shirt, waistcoat and tie. James Cawley says that the mobility allowance allows people to be able to participate in society. Source: Viliam Revtak Photography

“There is an additional cost to be a disabled person in Ireland,” according to James Cawley, policy officer at Independent Living Movement Ireland, an organisation led by disabled people.

“It costs me, as a wheelchair user, more to get around. I can’t get onto every bus so I [often] have to get a taxi.”

The closed schemes were “a vital support for disabled people to be able to have choice in transport and get to work, education and training”.

It has been recognised for many decades in national and international research that transport costs are higher for many disabled people. Transport is also recognised by the National Disability Authority as one of the essential services required to realise independent living.

Over half of those surveyed by Rehab Group in 2018 said the cost of transport limits their decision to travel, with many having to rely on family and friends, reducing their independence.

These costs were addressed in a report on accessibility of public transport by the Joint Committee on Transport in 2018 with recommendations that included the acceleration of the implementation of the Transport Support Scheme, a review of State supports given the removal of the Motorised Transport Grant and a review of the Free Travel scheme.

These recommendations were influenced by submissions on the impact of the removal of the Mobility Allowance and Motorised Transport Grant, with Inclusion Ireland stating the absence of a scheme “has left families in desperate financial distress and has left many people in rural areas without transport”.

Background image of a taxi in Dublin with an extract of a letter to the Taoiseach’s Office asking about a replacement scheme from April 2017 - obtained by FOI. Extract - We have a lady who has been diagnosed with MS in our care. This involves numerous hospital appointments… which cost her in the region of €260 per month. Her only income is €193 per week. Source: Department of the Taoiseach via FOI Request

A simple solution ‘not chosen’

A few months after the closure of the schemes, a Review Group on Transport Supports recommended development of a new scheme of individual payments. “This informed the Government decision to establish an Inter-Departmental Group”, according to the DOH spokesperson.

The Government then decided towards the end of 2013 “that the Scheme should be developed by the Minister for Health in consultation with other relevant Ministers”, the spokesperson added.

“The work of the Review Group and the Inter-Departmental Group continues to inform the development of policy proposals.”

There was a simple solution that could have been, at the very least, an interim measure, according to John Dolan, chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI). Implementing legislation that detailed the terms and conditions of the Mobility Allowance – or its proposed replacement, the Transport Support Scheme – “would not be contravening the Equality Status Acts”.

This is because “if the Oireachtas passes legislation or the court makes a decision, that trumps the equality legislation”, according to the 2000 Act, said Dolan.

There were options available at the time that they chose not to take. That’s what should have been done.

Noteworthy obtained a DOH briefing note from 2017 through a freedom of information (FOI) request. It gave details of such legislation, the Health (Transport Support) Bill.

The briefing stated that “the Government’s legislative programme for 2016 and 2017 included” this Bill. The memo gave details of a “Health Transport Support payment” to replace the “two schemes closed in 2013” which was “at an advanced stage”:

The Bill provides for a new scheme of individual payments to contribute towards the cost of transport for persons with disabilities, on low incomes, who have severe and permanent restrictions in their functional mobility… which prevent them from using a private car / or accessible public passenger transport…

A further memo to the Taoiseach’s Office in 2018 states that the general scheme of the Bill was circulated “to all Departments requesting observations” prior to “submission to Government for approval to draft and to publish”, yet it never reached the Oireachtas floor.

When asked for an update on this Bill, a spokesperson for the DOH once again gave the same response as our query on the planned replacement scheme: “Work is ongoing on the policy proposals on transport supports for people with disabilities.”

Dolan, who was a Senator at the time this Bill was being developed, said that “it is crazy disappointing that [the Bill] hasn’t been brought to fruition”. Dolan added that “nobody in the past eight years has been able to apply for Mobility Allowance”, and that’s not because the Government has proven there is no need for it.

Spending €2.3m less per year

The Mobility Allowance was a means-tested payment paid by the HSE to severely disabled people who were between the ages of 16 and 66 when applying. It was designed to help people who were unable to walk or use public transport.

At the time it was closed, the Government stated that the 4,700 recipients of the €208.50 monthly payment would keep it “another four months” but payments would “cease at that point”. This was to give the Government time to “devise an alternative method of meeting people’s needs”.

Background image of a wheelchair user using the ramp of an accessible vehicle with an extract of a letter to the Taoiseach’s Office asking for the mobility allowance to be reinstated from January 2016 - obtained by FOI. Extract - My son has spina bifida and is a full-time wheelchair user. There is no provision for young people like him to get to college & the little help they had with the mobility allowance has been taken away. Source: Department of the Taoiseach via FOI Request

However, the Government still continue to pay “the monthly Mobility Allowance on an interim basis” to the people who were in receipt of it “at the time that the Scheme closed”, according to the DOH spokesperson. This figure has dropped to just over 3,500 people as of March 2021, with over half of these on the full rate of the allowance.

Noteworthy calculated that this means the total cost of the scheme has dropped from over €9m in 2013 to €6.7m in 2021.

“They’re saving money through people dying or having jobs and not meeting the means-test anymore”, explained activist Byrne, who is also a board member of Irish Rail and a mobility scooter user.

She said that only a small proportion of disabled people who had very complex needs were entitled to these closed schemes.

There’s a fixation in Government that transport issues are only about making public transport accessible.

Byrne said that accessible transport includes “your own personal private transport”, including the extra costs it takes to adapt vehicles. She included bicycles in this as “there are people who can’t walk who can cycle” but the cost of their equipment is higher.

Transport activist Suzy Byrne - mobility scooter user wearing sunglasses, a yellow top and navy cardigan - with people blurred in the background. The top of Suzy’s walking stick and mobility scooter are visible. Suzy Byrne says that public transport will never be universally accessible so supports will always be needed by some disabled people. Source: Eamonn Farrell via RollingNews.ie

The cost of disability 

The “recent developments” mentioned by the DOH spokesperson in relation to this issue included the “ongoing progress by the Department of Transport in providing accessible public transport nationally” as well as “Cost of Disability Study currently underway”.

The Cost of Disability Report, commissioned by economic consultants Indecon, has been received and is being considered “in detail” by the Department of Social Protection, according to their spokesperson. “A decision regarding the appropriate date of publication will be made once Government has had an opportunity to consider the report fully.”

An Indecon report on the same topic almost 20 years ago supported the “introduction of an additional cost of disability payment” to meet the cost of daily living expenses, including transport.

When asked about steps being taken to introduce a ‘cost of disability’ payment in a parliamentary question in May, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphries did not give a timeline, but referenced their newly commissioned report and said “when complete, the research will provide a valuable input to inform policy direction”.

This research will be interesting when published, felt Byrne, though she added that transport costs are currently leaving disabled people stuck in their own homes or residential homes because they can’t afford to travel.

“People’s expectations are being limited. You can have [accessible] trains and all the rest, but if you can’t get from your home to the train station because you can’t afford to do that, you’re going to feel that you can’t go anywhere.”

***

This is the third part in the LIFT OUT series of articles by Noteworthy on public transport accessibility which will finish next weekend. For this project, we also teamed up with The Journal as part of this month’s deep dive into transport as part of The Good Information Project. 

Project design image for the LIFT OUT investigation of a wheelchair user approaching steps, signifying lack of accessibility.

This investigation was proposed and part-funded by readers of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and carried out by Maria Delaney.

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as a wheelchair user boarding a bus.

About the author:

Maria Delaney

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