Welcome to the story of one woman’s struggle to get basic safe and suitable transport for her severely autistic son to get to his special school and back.
We’re a family of four, a mum, a dad, a 4 year old boy and a nearly 18 month girl.
Our 4 year old son Nicholas is autistic. This has a massive impact on all our lives – sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes “what even is happening?!”.
This isn’t a wider blog about autism though: this blog exists solely to document the struggle that we, one family among many in Birmingham UK, are facing in trying to secure provision of a safe and accessible way for our son to get to the special school that he’s starting in September 2016.
My hope is that Birmingham City Council staff, city Councillors and press/media will find it a useful source of information. I’m just going to document the facts, and do my best to keep how I feel about the way disabled children, the most vulnerable of vulnerable groups, have been treated to one side. The facts speak for themselves here.
So a bit of background to the issue. Nicholas will start at a special school in South Birmingham for autistic children in September 2016. Nicholas’s autism is so severe that mainstream school is not an option (he doesn’t speak at all, or understand language, for example, and toilet training is a distant dream): but this is a wonderful school and we’re lucky he has a place.
We know a lot of kids who already go to the school and they all get there the same way: a school minibus with appropriate seats and harnesses, and trained guides, collects them from home and takes them to school, and vice versa in the afternoons. In May the school helped all parents of children due to start at the school in September to fill in the forms applying for transport. We documented our childrens’ needs, and why public transport (particularly when it’s long and complex journeys as are often required when your child needs to attend a school a considerable distance from their home) would be impossible for them. The focus is rightly on the needs of the children, but we also mentioned the impossibility of getting siblings to other schools or settings without suitable minibus travel for our disabled children; and for us, and for many other families, the fact that both parents work.
On Saturday 9 July, I received a letter from Travel Assist, the bit of Birmingham City Council which deals with transport services, saying that to assist with travel for Nicholas they were offering us a free bus pass on West Midlands Travel buses. It took me a while to process this: I wasn’t sure they could actually be suggesting that a severely autistic child with no way of processing instructions and very little control over his body, should be subjected to a 2 buses each way journey in rush hour, taking well over an hour of what would be overwhelming, incomprehensible agony for him – and that a parent should take him each way, making it absolutely impossible for that parent to do anything like a day’s work, let alone also get his sister to her setting. Not to mention the fact that, for all but 3 months of the 2016-2017 school year Nicholas will be free on the bus anyway, as he won’t yet be five.
Conversations with other parents and Nicholas’s school confirmed that apparently that’s exactly what the Council were suggesting. In fact, it looks as though there’s not an application for transport to special schools for children starting in 2016-2017 which hasn’t been refused by the Council. They’ve slashed the budget. The education of disabled children and the well-being of their families is, apparently, an acceptable casualty. And crucially, the mass rejection of applications raises the question of whether the Council has covertly decided to phase out transport to special schools.
So, of course, we appealed. All the parents are appealing on behalf of their children. I’ve seen my local councillor and MP, and lots of other parents are doing the same. I’ve sent emails to Brigid Jones, the Councillor for Children, Families and Schools.
In my appeal I documented the difficulties that Nicholas would have if we attempted to undertake such a bus journey with him twice a day, particularly when he’s already tired and overwhelmed in a way that most people with no experience of autism can’t even imagine. I pointed out that he’d arrive at school, if at all, in no fit state to learn anything. I pointed out that the effects would be unpleasant, perhaps actually dangerous, for anyone else on the bus. I pointed out that it would be impossible for us to get his sister to her setting, that I’d have to quit my job (and neither of our jobs are that secure, due to the economic instability in the country at the moment). It’s an awful situation for us: it’s worse for other families I know whose children have been refused transport, who may now face losing their sole income.
Now I await the outcome of the Stage 1 Appeal, which is due on Monday 25 July (10 working days after the Council received it). I’m not optimistic. I know that the Stage 1 Appeals are reviewed by the same department that made the original decisions, and that they have no budget with which to overturn any decisions. I also know that other parents, when they have spoken to staff at Travel Assist, have actually been told that all Stage 1 Appeals will fail. (Of course this negates the whole purpose of having a two stage appeal mechanism).
But we have to get through this to get to Stage 2 Appeals, which are considered by councillors. And in the meantime, I’m talking talking talking about it. Perhaps naively, I’m hoping that the councillors who decided to slash the budget for the safe transport of disabled children did so because they genuinely didn’t understand what they were suggesting, or how it would affect these children and their families. If they did understand it, then – consciously or not – a decision to disregard the needs and rights of disabled children, people who literally have no voice, relies in part on the expectation that this sort of decision won’t be fought. Together with other parents, I’m making sure it will be fought
A couple of friends, who don’t have disabled children but have wondered why I’m looking so haggard and worn over the last couple of weeks, have asked how they could help. My first thought was to ask them to send me chocolate but here’s a more serious idea.
If you live in Birmingham, email your local councillor and your MP. You can find them by googling “who is my local councillor” – this takes you to a page on Direct Gov which lets you search for them by entering your postcode (you get details of both councillors and MPs at the same time). Make sure you copy in Brigid Jones, council member for children, families and schools (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Say something like this “I have become aware that Birmingham City Council is not offering suitable supported transport to any of the vulnerable disabled children who are starting at special schools from September 2016 onwards, presumably with a view to fading out supported transport entirely in the future. This doesn’t affect me or my family personally but as a resident and tax payer in Birmingham, I would like to express how I feel about this and I would urge you, my councillor/MP, to take appropriate action on my behalf.”
Then you could say what you think about it. For me it’s hard to avoid swear words or insults, but obviously those aren’t recommended! A couple of sentences would be enough to make the point. Here are some ideas:
- You could mention the catastrophic consequences of this for the education of the children involved, children who will arrive at school exhausted and distressed.
- You could mention the distress to siblings in mainstream settings, who too often already don’t get enough attention due to their sibling’s complex needs, who will now literally never be able to see their main caregiver collect them from school, even when there are plays or prize givings or special events.
- You could talk about the economic consequences: if you’d like to talk about our family go ahead. The school Nicholas will attend would literally need to build an enormous new car park if no transport for its disabled children is to be provided, and there is zero space for this. To make their policy work the Council would need to build at least enormous new school.
- You could say “I know of one family where the only option would be for the mother to give up work, and claim carer’s allowance. The state will be worse off than if the Council just agreed to meet its obligations to disabled children”.
- You could comment on the extent to which knowing that the Council is choosing to make budget cuts at the expense of the most vulnerable of vulnerable groups, disabled children, this doesn’t inspire confidence in you as to the fairness and integrity of their policies and processes.
Or you could just write that you don’t agree and that you’d like the Council to reconsider/your MP to be aware of what’s happening and how their constituents feel about it. Ask them what they’re going to do about it.
If you can do this, it would be awesome. When budget cuts need to be made, the disabled are too often in the first line of fire. In the case of very many of these children, they literally can’t speak for themselves and may never be able to do so. Please help us speak for them!