Ukip activists are aggressively defensive about their party's attitude to the disabled. Photo: Getty
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Ukip should examine its own record over a disability “tirade”

There’s a lot of intellectualising about Ukip at present, but a simple truth is that they’re not very nice people.

A toad, a lying piece of excrement, vile, thick, a “dick”, dangerous, supporting “paedos, gang and child rape”, a “dog,” hateful, a “vile excuse for a human being”.

These are just some of the more polite (and hence printable) insults thrown at me by some 500 Ukip representatives and supporters in an apparently organised attack through social media this week.

I’m either Trotskyite or fascist, they say (difficult to comprehend how those two go together).

Although I regard it as pathetic, many people would find sinister their messages to me saying they are “looking forward to my demise”, “the sooner extinct, the better” and I’ve got “nowhere to hide”.

What has generated all this manufactured fury?

It seems they’ve noticed a two-week-old comment in which I drew attention to a blog by the protest group Disabled People Against The Cuts (DPAC), who are by two-thirds victims of the iniquitous bedroom tax, which lambasted unsavoury and offensive statements about disabled people made by Ukip candidates or in Ukip policy.

The article showed how Ukip defended the right of one of their local candidates who they described as “excellent” to argue for forced abortion of disabled foetuses; how their 2010 manifesto contained proposals for learning disabled people to be put in segregated communities, and how Ukip’s leader personally said another local candidate could not stand for the party because of his physical disability.

DPAC carefully referenced these claims, and I saw that each was based on reporting by independent journalists in national media, where Ukip had been given a right of reply and to correct any factual inaccuracy.

Nevertheless, the blanket denials and torrent of abuse from Ukip against me for simply drawing attention to the article continues unabated.

Although those sending the messages profess to care about disabled people, without a jot of irony or self-awareness, one declares me to be a “loony”.

But that’s hardly surprising when one of their MEPs who’s bothered to ask me directly about this, is the very same one who the parliamentary record shows used the word “autistic” in a pejorative way to attack a political opponent.

So what does all this say about Ukip and its supporters?

That too many of them appear to hold offensive and discriminatory views against disabled people.

That they embrace an unbelievable hypocrisy by repeatedly defending their own statements as “free speech”, while denouncing the right of those of us who disagree with them to do the same.

That they have been cushioned by the free ride they have enjoyed for too long in the British media, and are totally unused to being held to public account for their views and conduct, in a way other parties standing for election always have.

Ukip members should be angry if they really cared about disabled people. They should share the rage of disabled people who are by two-thirds of the victims of the iniquitous bedroom tax, have suffered the indignity of Atos “fit-for-work” tests unfit for a civilised society and that families with disabled members have been made five times worse off than others by this government’s spending and benefit cuts which the Hardest Hit coalition calculated has taken £9bn out of the pockets of Britain’s disabled people.

The newly-elected cohort of Ukip MEPs could share my own anger about Britain’s record, when comparing it to the increases in disability benefits in France and Belgium despite austerity measures, in a laudable attempt to protect disabled people from the worst ravages of the economic crisis.

But instead all we see is a mock anger from Ukip, defending the indefensible within their own party, and attacking a group like Disabled People Against The Cuts who – by the way – have robust criticisms of all parties, including Labour.

To make my own position clear.

I worked with a disability charity for nine years before being elected to the European Parliament and am unapologetically a lifelong campaigner for disability rights.

As either chair or vice-chair of Europe’s all-party Disability Rights Group of MEPs continuously since first being elected, I have and will always hold out the hand of friendship to other parties who sincerely want to work together to improve the rights of disabled people.

But like any other equalities campaigners, if I see or hear discriminatory actions or behaviour, then there is an obligation to challenge them.

Richard Howitt is the Labour MEP for the East of England and vice-chair of the European Parliament All-Party Disability Rights Group of MEPs

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.