Solingen 93

Domestic Violence and Abuse

The Disability Act 2005: informing citizens about rights and complaints procedures (Bernie McNally)

>>The Office of the Ombudsman,
we’ve been around for about 30 years, 29 years at the moment, and over
those 29 years we have dealt with about 80,000 complaints and several
hundreds of thousands of inquiries. But as Siobhan just said we’ve actually
received very, very few complaints with relation to the Disability Act, so I’ll
talk you through that over the next few
minutes. Initially when we were established
we had responsibility for government departments, An Post, Telecom Eireann
at the time, then a year later we got local authorities and health boards, which
is now the HSE, then in 2005 we were given responsibility for
part 3 of the Disability Act. So under part 3 people have a right
to access, physical access to buildings, they have a right to
information on services they receive. They have a right to make a complaint
about sectoral plans that are produced via various government
departments, etcetera. So in 2005 we got that responsibility. And we did expect, I have to say, quite
a few complaints to emerge, but actually since then, on average, we’ve only
received about six or seven complaints a year about the Disability Act! And that is despite there having been
a fair amount of publicity, the NDA themselves did quite a lot of publicity
about this and we have done some, although I have to say we fully accept
that we could do a lot more public awareness work, we’re just a little bit
challenged in terms of the resources
that we have. But people with disabilities can complain
to us via normal channels under the Ombudsman Act. In 2007 our jurisdiction was extended
to include a lot of public voluntary hospitals, but also the hundreds of
services that might be providing services on behalf of the HSE or with
financial assistance from the HSE. So there are several hundred of those
and they would be within jurisdiction of
our office. And then just last year we got a
new, another 180 bodies under our jurisdiction, that would include the whole
third level education sector, so people for the first time can make complaints
about universities, about VECs, other bodies that came in under jurisdiction at
that time would be the National Council for Special Education, the Housing
Authority, the Disabled Driver’s Medical Appeals Board, so a number of
agencies, in fact doubling the number of bodies we had within remit. All citizens in this country, you all know,
have rights bestowed on them by our constitution and then various pieces
of primary and secondary legislation. But what is difficult is that if people
aren’t aware of their rights they can’t exercise those rights. So on a number of occasions our office
would speak to public bodies and remind them of the necessity to
inform people about their rights. Our experience is that when people
know about their rights they use them, if they don’t know
about them they actually don’t. Rights are constantly changing. There is new legislation and
amendments being introduced all the time, so that puts a lot of public bodies
under pressure, and I think a number of people in this audience today have
a huge interest in this, and I’ll talk in a minute about access officers and the
role that they have to play in informing people about their rights. There may be some access officers
in the audience, hopefully not, but there may be some who already had a
full-time job, were very, very busy just doing what they were doing, and then
they were told very suddenly one day, we need you to be
the access officer as well! And that wouldn’t be a welcome piece
of information to hear from your boss, if you already have a very, very busy job. But the access officer role is
absolutely and utterly central, we think, to the provision of proper and good
services, accessible services, to people
with disabilities. The heads of every public body and
there is about 650 bodies who fall — who have obligations under the
Disability Act, the head of every public body has a responsibility to provide or
arrange for, and coordinate the provision of assistance and guidance to persons
with disabilities in accessing its services. People must be told about the services
of access officers and how they may access these services. If disabled people are unaware about
access officers, access to particular services may seem blocked to them. Assistance with accessing services
is a legal right, and access officers are appointed for this purpose. Of the few complaints that we get to our
office every year, many of them are due to the fact that the person or a person
perhaps advocating on their behalf, wasn’t aware that there was an access
officer, they were having a problem with the public body, be it a local authority
or a hospital, whatever, and they had difficulty getting the frontline service
person they were dealing with to understand their
complaint or to deal with them. They made contact with our office
and we were able to say well hang on, were you not put in
touch with an access officer? We might contact the public
body and in a number of instances an access officer was suddenly
manufactured, was actually created in response to our inquiry. We would say to public bodies, there is
no point in you having an access officer unless that access officer has a job
description, has time to perform their duties, has an interest in performing
their duties, and will go about doing the job very proactively. So not just waiting until somebody looks
for your service, but actually going out there and saying, scanning the
environment around you, predicting what might cause accessibility issues,
and working with the management to ensure that you
proactively address those issues. It’s very important that all staff in
an organisation know who the access officer is, often somebody might ring
a reception, ring a switch and ask to be put through to the access
officer and the person doesn’t know. So it’s really, really important that all
staff of an organisation are aware of who the access officer
is and what their role is. There should be very good signposting
to the access officer, and not just relying on a website, as you all know,
not everybody uses the internet. So a variety of ways of signposting
users of the service towards that access
officer. I apologise, I was listening to the
talk there on universal design, feeling extremely guilty about my slides,
so apologies for people who can’t read these, mea culpa, but I’ll talk
through a little bit of them anyway. Disability awareness training is
absolutely critical in every organisation. Some of us might think we have a fairly
good understanding of what it means to have a disability, but I think most people
have something to learn about various disabilities and
implications of disability out there. Every organisation should run disability
awareness training quite regularly. And staff should feel obliged to
attend that, because there can be always something
new that they will learn. Some of the classics that people come
to us and complain about is somebody with a visual impairment has somebody
coming up and talking to them, without introducing themselves, their name or
what their position is, be it that they be a housing officer or they
are a doctor or nurse, etcetera. People who have hearing impairments,
people having conversations in front of them looking very serious, looking very
worrying, without things being explained to them what the
conversations are happening. People investing in putting wonderful
braille signs on doors, but if the person with the visual impairment doesn’t know
where the door is in the first place it’s not exactly helpful. Regularly people using, trying to access
our services would find it difficult where we have asked perhaps for a complaint
to be written down, now obviously we do provide services and we do
assist people to write things down, but understanding maybe some people
with dyslexia, for example, might not like filling in forms or if they do, they
mightn’t like to put too much detail down, they will keep it short and
maybe part of the message gets missed. So we would very much encourage all
access officers and all public bodies to ensure that there is regular disability
awareness training for staff and I know I’m not the only
person to have said that today. Again what’s on this slide really is
information that’s on the
website. So we would encourage access officers
to use that information that is available, that the NDA has published. Complaints and appeals. Most public bodies do not particularly
like when complaints are made, I would say that about ourselves and our own
organisation, we get complaints about
what we do. It’s never particularly pleasant, most
people in this day and age now are working hard, they are very, very busy,
a complaint may come in, they may say gosh to examine this properly I need
to give this a lot of time and people often don’t have a lot of time. But we would encourage all public
bodies to look at complaints differently. To really try and see
them in a positive light. When you think that there are
organisations out there in the retail industry who pay private, what do they
call them, private shoppers — mystery shoppers, to go around and
test the service and give feedback, they are paying for that service. Whereas actually all of us who
have complaint systems, we can get feedback, good and bad,
about how we’re doing. So we should really try to embrace that
system of complaints and learn from it. And I use an example, some of you may
have heard of a major scandal in the UK in the last few years called the Mid
Staffordshire scandal, which involved a group of hospitals and that group of
hospitals over a period of time, it has since been found that there were a
thousand, at least, unnecessary deaths, avoidable deaths in those hospitals. There were very serious breaches
of standards, very, very serious, the government there commissioned
a massive investigation which cost millions and got evidence
from hundreds of people, etcetera. It was awful the way people
were treated, sick people in hospital, their families, etcetera. But during the investigation it transpired
that hundreds of complaints had been made from the very, very early days,
that had those complaints been listened to, would have immediately
pointed to deficits in care. For example, and it seems shocking,
in one of the hospitals because water wasn’t being delivered to patients, they
actually started a practice that water had to be prescribed, so if a person was
dehydrated the doctors actually started prescribing water to make sure that
the patient was given water every day. Now had those simple little complaints
been identified early on and responded to, that actually could
have prevented deaths later on. We often describe complaints as the
Canary in the coal mine, you’ll recall or might have read about years ago when
the guys went down the mines they left a Canary in the cage, if he keeled over
that was a sign of a build up of gas and they all got out really quickly. We should see complaints as that,
as a good warning system for us, and we should look at them positively. Yes, some complaints may be a little
bit trivial, may be a little bit vexatious, but mixed in with those there
is often useful information for us. And in terms of appeals, public services
that provide, be it a benefit, various different types of service, it is really
critically important that they have a very robust appeals structure in place. Again within our office, we’re learning
and improving or trying to improve all the time, where a complaint, where we don’t
uphold somebody’s complaint to us, we tell them that we have an
internal appeals system, we ensure that somebody new, who hasn’t been
involved in the examination of their complaint to date, somebody new will
be assigned this case and will relook at it with fresh eyes, and we have an
appeals manager, etcetera, we have a structure in place, to make sure that we
give it independent and proper review. Under the Disability Act what it
says about complaints is quite simple. It says first and foremost the
head of the public body has to ensure compliance with the Disability Act. So that’s a fairly onerous responsibility
on the head of the public body. And hence if there isn’t compliance,
if there isn’t compliance about there not being an access officer, or if there isn’t
compliance around physical access or access to information, that
head of the public body is responsible, it’s very clear who is responsible. So if there is a complaint about
non-compliance with the Disability Act the public body must appoint an inquiry
officer, they must appoint an inquiry
officer. That inquiry officer then must make a
determination on whether the body was in compliance with the Act or not and
must report his or her recommendation to the head of the public body. It is very much expected that if an
inquiry officer finds that there has been some breach, that there isn’t compliance
with the Disability Act, that the head of the public body would take
immediate action to rectify that. On our website we have a number of
resource tools that may be of assistance to some of you, we have one document
called, “Listen, respond, learn and improve.” Which is the ombudsman’s
guide to setting up and operating an internal complaint system. We just republished that, we revised
and republished it in April of this year. We’ve another document called,
“Six rules for getting it right, the ombudsman’s guide to good public
administration”, that we just published also this year, that is to – I suppose a
standard as such, it’s our standard of what good public administration looks
like, what we expect public bodies to
provide. And if you or somebody belonging to you
wants to make a complaint and you’re wondering are you being reasonable
or unreasonable and how should you frame it, those resource tools can
be quite useful at allowing you to do so. I didn’t want to take up too much of your
time this morning, but I do promise you that if anybody does require any
additional information, there is a lot on our website, we also have a Lo-call
number and we’ll be happy to make anybody available to discuss any
issue with you at any point in time. Thank you. Subtitles by Premier Captioning &
Realtime Ltd.

Cesar Sullivan

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