Flash Says…

Archive for May 2010

Disability Living Allowance is a mystery to many disabled people. You might not know who is entitled to it, or feel you are “not disabled enough” to qualify. However, the benefit is there to assist people who have mobility issues or regularly need someone to help them. If that could be you, or you know someone who might be eligible, then you should read on…

Let’s get one thing straight. DLA is a benefit created to compensate disabled people for the extra costs they incur compared to able-bodied people, such as the need to cover taxi fares, or the cost for someone to come in and help clean your house. DLA has nothing to do with whether you are in work, or are able to work. There are many people in work or running businesses – like myself – who are legitimately claiming DLA.

Nor is DLA means-tested, in fact it is the only disability benefit of which I am aware for which income is irrelevant. Higher living costs are incurred by most disabled people regardless of their income or ability to work and that is what DLA recognises. If you consider yourself disabled, do you need any help around the house or outside? If so, you could be eligible for DLA. Check out the criteria at this law centre website. Note that only people under 65 can apply; if you are older, you might be eligible for Attendance Allowance instead.

If you are considering applying, pick up the phone right away! Call the Department of Work and Pensions on 0800 055 66 88 (8.00am to 6.00pm Monday to Friday) for a form. Any DLA award will be backdated to the day you made the request. Online applications cannot be backdated so any “thinking time” while you work out how to answer would not be recognised. For this reason I recommend obtaining a hard copy and applying on paper.

As for the application, I am not an expert, just a lay person who happens to be someone with an impairment and so is familiar with the DLA forms. I can only write from my experience as an applicant who was awarded, I believe, an appropriate award for my needs. The purpose of this article is to offer advice on how to succeed in the initial application, based on my own experience.

I must be honest: applying for DLA is depressing. It is a laborious task, drawn out over many pages, in which you are invited to focus upon the things you can’t do, a dispiriting task at the best of times. Set aside plenty of time to complete the form, in chunks if necessary – you will be led into the mindset of assessing where you need help and struggle to manage, so do make sure to give yourself some time off to relax and regroup after completing these very negative questions. You will need it.

For every question, it’s useful to say what your problem is with the specific task, how you need help, and how DLA can provide it.

So if you are asked whether you can go out and about you might answer:

  • I am unable to go swimming as I am frightened of being in the same place as strangers.
  • I need someone with me to reassure me and to help me get home safely.
  • If I had DLA I could pay for a taxi so I could avoid other people on the way there, and I could pay for someone to come with me and keep me calm while in the pool and changing rooms.

Or you might be asked about cooking, and answer

  • I am unable to make myself a cooked meal as my wrist pain means I cannot chop food and my back pain means I cannot stand up for more than 5 minutes.
  • I need someone with me to prepare food, chopping it and standing over the stove while it cooks
  • If I had DLA I could pay for someone to come and prepare food for me. They could make me a cooked meal and wash up the dishes afterwards.

You can use this format regardless of the nature of your impairment, of course. It is:

  • I cannot….
  • I need…
  • If I had DLA, I could…

This structure to question answering, which proved successful for me, was inspired by information from a group formerly known as BHAS – Barton Hill Advice Service. That group now appears to be part of Barton Advice Centre in Oxfordshire, and unfortunately their very valuable advice guides have now disappeared from the internet, so I am unable to credit them further. However, I feel that their advice is still valid and this is the best way to complete the forms; it gives the Department of Work and Pensions every reason to tick the box!

Now that you know the format to take when answering questions on the DLA form. I would suggest you initially step away from the forms and brainstorm. Consider the issues you have inside the house / outside the house / going out e.g. cinema / on public transport, and work out how extra money could help you to overcome these problems, then fit it to the form. Do answer their questions but don’t be afraid of repetition across different sections. There is bound to be some overlap between questions, so just give them all the information you’ve got at every stage. Help the adjudicator justify making an award!

If you use any equipment to help in your daily life (whether that is a walking stick or a magnifying glass), or you have developed a workaround to a particular task, remember to dismiss this for the application. Step back from your situation and look at it from the outside. If you are doing anything differently from an ordinary person in order to manage, you need to put this on the form, and to state what you could actually achieve without assistance. Also, if you have been offered equipment which is not appropriate do explain why alternatives are not suitable.

You are also able to submit extra supporting information, and I would strongly recommend you do so. In my case, I submitted a diary (7 days in my life, it had things like “I would like to do X but I have to rest because I spent all my energy earlier so I am unable to manage …” “I need to pee but have to crawl upstairs on all fours because …” “I am in pain and so I can’t stand for long enough to make lunch for myself, instead I have to eat a piece of fruit” etc.)

I also included letters from a variety of people: my flatmate (who had to take the bins out and do stuff for me around the house), my partner (who had general experience of my needs) and my mother (who described a day trip and all the planning that went into it to ensure I didn’t have far to walk between rest points). Any of this kind of personal information can only help to bring your situation alive in the adjudicator’s eyes – do send it!

It’s all about ticking the right boxes.

Many DLA guides say “write about your worst day” but I believe you should only write about an average day (while mentioning “but on my worst days I cannot…”) otherwise you may be found out, especially if what you say is not backed up by your GP. And there we hit upon another issue – many GPs do not realise exactly how life is for us.

Face it, how often do you tell your GP about the day to day pain and issues you experience? After all, you are unlikely to ring up and report “I’m in pain again today!” However if you are considering claiming DLA, I recommend that you write to your GP with a list of all the tasks you find difficult and need help to achieve. Then book an appointment with your GP to get these things formally on record. That way, you can name your GP as a referee on the DLA form confident in the knowledge that they realise how much pain you are in, how limited your walking may be, how you cannot lift objects heavier than a few kilos, how terrified you are in areas you do not know, or how you need someone with you to remind you of the task for which you set out. Be sure your GP understands your issues in explicit terms and will then be armed to support your application for DLA. Tell them that you are applying and ask for their support.

Above all, don’t let the process get you down! I know how dispiriting it can be to have to consider what you cannot do, but it is necessary in order to get a DLA award. If you find the process depressing, seek help from a partner, friend or family who can offer support. But please, don’t give in! The process may be unfairly arduous, but may ultimately mean you are provided with an extra few thousand pounds per year. DLA can also open other doors – depending on the award, you may automatically qualify for a blue badge, travel pass, or be able to take an assistant with you for free when visiting an exhibition or the cinema.

DLA will be paid to you whether or not you actually use it for the assistance you specify on the form. Nobody will be checking up – once you are entitled to it, the money is yours, to spend as you see fit. Personally I find it enabling – spending mine on a weekly cleaner, and minicabs to my nearest accessible station, both things that I could not justify out of my own pocket but which have made my life easier, and more equal to others.

Whatever your financial situation, Disability Living Allowance is money which can help. It is there to compensate you for additional expenses caused by your impairment, and you should not feel guilty when you receive it – just relieved that your needs have been recognised and a small step towards equality has been made.

I am often asked about my name. What’s my real name? It’s Flash. What did my parents call me? Ah, well that’s a different story.

Let’s get it out of the way – I wasn’t named Flash by my parents. Nor am I going to share with you the name they did give me. However, Flash is not a name I chose, it just came to me, and became me. So this is the story of how that happened.

It started as a nickname at primary school. Flash rhymed with a contraction of my birth name. Other friends (Skid Lyd, and less auspiciously Smelly Melly) soon outgrew their childhood names, but somehow mine stuck. After a while it seemed that everyone called me Flash, including the teachers, and I began to introduce myself to people that way. It’s not a name I think is particularly cool, or appropriate, but one way or another it became me, and I stayed with it.

My family often still called me by my birth name, especially my mother. I was always my birth name to my grandparents too, but they were older and I don’t think they’d picked up on the fact that friends now knew me as anything else.  But most significantly, whenever I recalled my birth name, I recalled hearing it shouted, telling me off, being in trouble. I didn’t have any positive associations with that name any more.

By the time I finished school everyone knew me as Flash, and through university that was my name – I didn’t even think about it anymore, as Flash was my name, my identity. I’d been signing letters and even bank cards as Flash for years. I no longer used my birth name and where I needed it for official purposes, I just gave my initials. I discovered that the university’s computer system published my name with my email address so I persuaded the system administrator to change my details, on the pretext that I was receiving too much flirtatious spam because my email address could be tied to a female name.

Identity is a very personal thing, and somehow I had become Flash, or that name became me; it was now how I chose to identify. My birth name became my “old” name, one that I didn’t relate to anymore. It was a name I no longer wanted or needed.

I changed my name by deed poll on 23 April 2000, while attending my first full-time job, at Demon Internet. This was something I had considered for a while, as although staff on the ground knew me as Flash, and my email address was flash@demon.net, HR and other admin staff who hadn’t met me automatically thought of me by my birth name, leading to confusion.

However the real reason was somewhat more humourous… We had just been given a new, and lengthy, way of answering the phone. It would be “Demon at Thus, NOC frontline, Flash speaking” – quite a mouthful. One day a director called, and unbeknown to me was unimpressed at the way I had answered. My boss instructed me that I had to use my “real name”.

My solution for that was simple: I found the deed poll wording online, bought some parchment paper, and printed it out at work. Then I and two friends retired to the pub, where I signed the deed poll, my friends witnessed it, and I placed my seal – a plastic sticker purchased from a stationers earlier in the day. I bought my friends a beer to say thank you.

Over the weekend I again answered “Demon at Thus, NOC frontline, Flash speaking” and on Monday morning I was hauled up in front of my boss. However, I was prepared, and carried a copy of the deed poll. Now, at last, I was answering the phone with my “real” name. Finally, I truly was Flash.

I have always seen the formal adoption of my name as “becoming more me“, a completion of who I am, and I celebrate my “nameiversary” every year. As for the two witnesses, one is still a friend, the other now my husband. They too understand what it meant.

My mother continued to call me by my birth name for a few more years before she started to call me Flash, as she now does without thinking. I can understand that I was rejecting the name she chose, but I hadn’t deliberately picked an alternative, it was something that organically happened, and had now come to represent who I was. In any case, women often change their surname on marriage, and that is not a personal rejection of the name you have been given, but a symbol of your life moving forward and developing – as captured by Philip Larkin in a poem which begins “marrying left your maiden name disused”. I saw this identity change in a similar light.

If I am asked nowadays about my name, the question is usually “were your parents hippies?” Rather than explaining that I have changed my name, I find it easier to side step. I state that “if I’d been a boy, they would have called me Hunter Marshall Stirling” – a true, but irrelevant fact. And yes, my parents were hippies. I’ve seen photos of them in Afghan coats, my mother with Twiggy eye makeup. If I’d been a boy, I’d now be Hunter. Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that they might even have called their daughter Flash?

This is not the article I intended to write.

I had planned to analyse how well each of my local parliamentary candidates responded to a question I sent them – but that hardly matters now.

A fortnight before last week’s general election I emailed each of the candidates to ask for their policies on health, home care and the future of my local hospital. Only one (the Conservative Ed Northover) engaged with me – an independent referred me to his leaflet and then followed up with spam, and the others didn’t bother to respond. The BNP and UKIP candidates didn’t even advertise an email address, so they were out of the loop from the start.

I had been genuinely uncertain which way to vote and hoped that my candidates’ responses would help me decide. I was surprised that so few made the effort to answer. However at the end of the day it made little difference – our safe Labour seat remains in Labour hands (though how safe they might be, I don’t know).

Instead, I find myself rocked by the results from the local elections. Somehow, despite opinion polls showing national support for Tory and Lib Dem, there has been a swing to Labour – believed to come from people who are scared of the Tories taking over, trying to defend themselves against this possibility.

Previously a borough under No Overall Control, my area (Waltham Forest) now has a majority of Labour councillors. I think our council has operated quite well in recent years and I’m concerned that now one party has a majority, policies, planning applications and spending cuts can be rushed through and rubberstamped without adequate debate in the Town Hall.

What has really shaken me is the loss of the most effective councillor in my area, Keith Rayner, beaten by just a few dozen votes. After 20 years of service, getting things done with his effective but friendly manner, he has been rejected by the electorate – my own friends and neighbours.

I don’t mind admitting that I cried at the news, and I hear that I’m not the only one. Now residents are questioning themselves, wondering which neighbours played Judas. The situation is upsetting, and uncomfortable.

So this may not have been the article I intended to write, but it still has a point to make. If you value someone, vote for them. Put your X by the name of someone you actually want to see in power, rather than being sucked into nervous tactical voting. It looks like we may soon be facing another general election, and hopefully this time people will be brave enough to follow their guts, and the results will put the country in a position for real change at last.

I’ve been holed up in hotels a lot recently, and I’ve had the opportunity to experience the main budget hotel brands: Premier Inn, Travelodge and Holiday Inn Express. Which should I pick for my next trip?

The competitors are similarly priced: Travelodge, in blue and orange, costs from £45. Premier Inn, purple, realistically costs £60+ – their advertised rooms from £29 are very limited, and I’ve paid £90 for a last minute booking. Holiday Inn Express, in green and blue, costs £70-£90 but staff told me they have the authority to reduce the price, unlike at other hotels.

Holiday Inn Express were different from their rivals in other ways, and it’s clear that they see themselves at the bottom end of the luxury market rather than the higher end of budget. They offer complimentary breakfast and Independent newspaper every day, the door opens with a card rather than a key, and rooms have aircon. They were also the only hotel with a bar, although the others were each next door to a reasonable pub. Otherwise, the facilities they provide are similar to Premier Inn and Travelodge. I stayed in a disabled-access room with a wetroom in all cases.

The blue hotel felt cheap. There was a dusty area running  around the edge of the room, an inch which the hoover hadn’t reached. There was no shower-gel dispenser, nor a telephone (meaning that every time I had a query, I needed to toddle to reception). Toiletries were chargeable, as was late check out or early check in. And to complete the feeling of being in a dodgy motel, the bedside light was an orange strip behind the bed, giving the room a dubious glow. However, the personal touch from the staff did compensate for this; the housekeeper noticed I had a lie-in and returned to make up my room at once when I left in the early afternoon.

Dust? Anybody? Dust? That orange glow
Dust, anybody? Dust? and that orange glow

The green hotel felt more expensive – the pillows had labels saying whether they were firm or soft, a notepad and pen was provided, and the room had aircon. However, the aircon outlet was directly over the bed, meaning that I woke up because a cold or warm blast of air was coming straight at me; I developed a cough overnight. This was also the only hotel without BBC News, which I love to have on during the day. It was good that the room was opened with a card – easier than a key – but the electricity was also only activated by card – no good if I want to charge my laptop while I’m out. I quickly realised that any flat item would work, and put my Pizza Express card to good use!


View a one minute walkthrough showing the features of the disabled-access room at Holiday Inn Express.

The purple hotel fell somewhere in the middle – nothing was free but everything was adequate and the staff were very helpful and friendly, letting me check out at 4pm in one case because there were no earlier buses for me to catch. However, I had to ask for my room to be made up; it seems that if you leave your “Shh!” sign on the door beyond 10am the staff will pass over your room and not return.

The purpose of my visit was to see a relative in hospital, so I needed to take a bus to town every day. The blue hotel had no idea about buses (even though a direct service left from a stop just 3 minutes away), the purple hotel at least knew that there weren’t any nearby (well, this was Somerset after all) and the green hotel not only knew about the bus services but gave me a map to the nearest stop – now that’s good service.

Flash travelling lightEven when travelling light, I always take my laptop and phone charger. This is where the green hotel fell down – it had just one spare socket (shared with the tea and coffee tray), whereas the blue hotel had two spare sockets, both on the desk. At the purple hotel I did find sockets – behind the TV, and under the desk (unplugging a lamp) – neither of which were easy to access, despite the fact that I was staying in a disabled room.

What happens if you’ve forgotten your toothbrush? A replacement will be free at the green hotel, or you can buy a toiletry bag from the purple hotel – which of course means paying for other items that you might not want. At the blue hotel you could buy shower gel from a vending machine, but you’d need to go shopping for other items.

Although there were more extras at the green hotel, and great staff at the blue hotel, somehow I felt most at home in the purple one. So Premier Inn – you’ve won my custom.  After all, it was the only place where staff told me “nuffin’s not too much trouble, me lover” – how can anyone beat that?