Oxford charities and advocates for disabled people have backed Oxford City Council’s call for government funding for stewarding to allow the safe, inclusive reopening of the city centre for people with disabilities.
On 22 June, Cllr Marie Tidball wrote to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) asking the government to comply with their public sector equality duty and United Nations guidance on developing a disability-inclusive response to coronavirus by reversing a decision that it would not pay for stewards providing accessibility support as businesses and non-essential shops reopen.
MHCLG has allocated £134,950 from the Reopening High Streets Safely (RHSS) Fund for the council to introduce safety measures helping people get back to work and shops. The council is using this funding to introduce a range of measures that include advisory one-way pavements in the city centre and on Cowley Road, stencils and signage, and advice and support for businesses.
On the advice of an inclusive public realm focus group comprised of people with disabilities and representing disability charities, the council also introduced 12 stewards in the city centre and Cowley Road. The stewards help manage pedestrian flows and provide advice and support to people on social distancing and use of the one-way pavement guidance in place. This support includes personalised accessibility advice for people with disabilities, which the council and focus group members believe is necessary to allow Oxford to reopen in a safe and accessible way. MHCLG guidance says that these accessible street champions are not eligible for RHSS funding.
Office for National Statistics data published last month shows that disabled people represent 60% of coronavirus-related deaths – with disabled women 2.4 times more likely and disabled men 1.9 times more likely to die than in the general population. The risk of death from the virus increases significantly for people with disabilities younger than 65. Only a fifth of the 11 million people with a disability in the UK are on the government’s shielded list.
“As a disabled woman myself, I know that it is essential for the protection of the health of disabled people and their inclusion in our society that measures taken to exit lockdown consider their elevated risk of contracting coronavirus. Oxford City Council is committed to enabling access for disabled people, but it would be difficult for us to meet the costs of stewarding from our own resources given that we are projecting a funding shortfall of many millions of pounds as a result of the pandemic.
“To comply with their public sector equality duty and United Nations guidance on developing a disability-inclusive response to coronavirus, I would ask the government to think again and listen to the voices of disabled people and their advocates. We need to be able to reopen our city in a safe and accessible way, and we need government support to do this.”
Councillor Marie Tidball, cabinet member for supporting local communities
“Oxfordshire Association for the Blind is in full support of Oxford City Council’s stewarding team placed in the city centre. As you can imagine, blind and partially sighted people are finding social distancing a challenge and having a team of individuals in the area who can assist is a huge benefit and it gives us the confidence to go out independently, shop, visit friends and family and contribute to society along with everyone else. We believe this to be an essential part of the social distancing measures to keep us all safe.”
Mark Upton, client services manager, Oxfordshire Association for the Blind
“People with learning disabilities are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the general population yet we have been an afterthought in terms of protection from the pandemic. Many are terrified of catching the virus and are nervous of ‘going out and about’. Oxford City Council’s request for stewards to help maintain social distancing around the city centre is a sensible, proportionate, safe and reasonable one. The fact that the needs of people with a learning disability, and those with other disabilities, are being ignored yet again is of no great surprise. Perhaps one day we will be seen by those in power as equal partners in our communities rather than a nuisance.”
Ben McCay, chair of trustees, My Life My Choice
“Connection Support is strongly in favour of Oxford City Council’s funding request for accessibility street champions as part of the Reopening High Streets Safely Fund for the city centre. Knowing they have access to personalised advice will give greater confidence to people with disabilities and ease the fear of going out. Disabled residents are potentially more at risk if social distancing is not managed carefully. We have some clients who, due to their disability, would find this kind of support to be invaluable. We believe the stewards are essential to provide a disability-inclusive recovery to Oxford.”
Mark Thompson, CEO, Connection Support