For years there has been ambiguity surrounding eligibility for the Blue Badge Scheme, and many vulnerable people have not been given adequate recognition where their disabilities have not been immediately visible. In this article, Bilal explains the changes that have been made to this policy to make it more inclusive.

The Department of Transport has recently announced plans to extend the Blue Badge Scheme to include people with hidden disabilities, such as autism and dementia. Additionally, the proposed changes would include allowing a wider range of medical professionals other than GPs to perform eligibility assessments, which could mean that mental health professionals will have a more direct role in these assessments. These plans have been opened up to an eight-week long public consultation. This follows a move by the Scottish Government in December 2017 that extended Scotland’s Blue Badge Scheme to include people suffering from dementia, autism and Down’s syndrome, as well as their carers.

The Blue Badge Scheme was introduced in 1970 under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, and covers over 2.4 million people, granting them free parking in pay-and-display bays, and the permission to park on yellow lines in certain circumstances, among other benefits. The purpose of this scheme is primarily to ensure that people suffering from disabilities are not restricted in terms of mobility. Although it has undergone several reforms, these were mainly focused on limiting misuse and forgery of the badges by making verification more efficient.

Currently, eligibility for a blue badge is mainly tied to the physical ability to walk – this criterion excludes thousands of people on the autistic spectrum, as well as those suffering from dementia, anxiety, and conditions such as Colitis and Crohn’s disease. Although these people can physically walk, they may suffer from disorientation, agitation, or other unpleasant symptoms when doing so in public spaces. The current blue badge policy does include a provision for ‘considerable difficulty’ when walking, but it does not specify whether this refers to physical or non-physical difficulty. As a result of this ambiguity, the interpretation of these rules varies greatly between councils. The new proposal seeks to modify the criteria to ‘focus on the journey rather than just the physical act of walking’, in order to make the scheme’s implementation ‘fair and consistent’.

Plans to extend eligibility to include invisible disabilities have been considered previously – in 2005, the Department for Transport commissioned a research project to determine whether people with certain invisible disabilities – namely dementia, Autism, Colitis, and Crohn’s disease – could have mobility issues significant enough to warrant their being included in the Blue Badge Scheme. The research project was conducted by Transport and Travel Research Ltd (TTR) and found that those conditions could in fact impose significant limitations on individuals’ mobility. However, the project also identified significant potential issues with extending eligibility, such as a greater potential for abuse and reduced available parking spaces.

One of the issues highlighted by TTR in the report was that there was ‘widespread concern’ that giving people with invisible disabilities the same parking concessions as those with physical disabilities could ‘discredit the scheme’ in the eyes of the public. The research report therefore recommended that eligibility for the Blue Badge Scheme be limited to those who required physical help from another person in order to cross a street.

The fact that such a concern was so widespread highlights a larger underlying issue – the disparity between our perceptions and attitudes towards invisible disabilities as opposed to visible, physical disabilities. Despite the fact that awareness of mental health conditions has increased in recent years, and attitudes towards them have certainly improved since 2005, an underlying belief that mental conditions are somehow less serious than physical conditions remains entrenched in society. It is not uncommon to hear comments suggesting that anyone who isn’t in a wheelchair ‘doesn’t really need’ blue badge parking, which is unfortunate as those suffering from psychological conditions are often those who require the most support. In this sense, extending eligibility of the blue badge scheme would be a step in the right direction.

It is also important to note that invisible disabilities are not limited to mental health conditions, as the research conducted by TTR included Colitis and Cohn’s disease, which are bowel-related illnesses.

Overall, this situation presents an interesting case study of how councils interpret guidelines, the importance of clarity in such guidelines, and how public perception of issues can affect policies.

By Bilal Asghar