In April 1996, Janice Simons led the West Norfolk Disability Information Project (WNDiP), a group that had been meeting regularly to share information within the diabled community in West Norfolk, into a new era. West Norfolk had been described as a “blackspot” for information by the disabled community, with services as far as Norwich being noted as the closest available and therefore irrelevant for specific local needs.
A report was drawn up entitled “Closing the net” that contained their findings and was presented at “Working Together” a conference run by West Norfolk District Council that was exploring social needs in the area. “Closing the net” was described as “damning” by the King’s Lynn Citizen (now Lynn News) and made the need for a local service specifically for disabled people in West Norfolk undeniably clear.
The key needs identified by the group from the “Closing the net” report were:
- A local phone service with specific West Norfolk information
- Access work, including audits and access guides to the area
Advocacy work for those struggling to claim benefits or receive the right service from the state
- A group to campaign on local and national issues that would affect the disabled community in West Norfolk
- A group to liaise with between the community and the state
- A group that prioritises improving the quality of lives for disabled people in West Norfolk
By November 1998, the West Norfolk Disability Project had become the West Norfolk Disability Information Service and launched the first disability information hotline in West Norfolk. It’s focus, as explained by Peter Bavister-Smith (WNDiS Secretary at the time) to the Lynn News was, “for general enquiries from the disabled on where they can buy equipment they need, benefits they can apply for and any information they require.”
In 1999 WNDiS were on the lookout for a coordinator to join the team and help with their expansion. Jonathan Toye applied in October ‘99 after seeing the job post in the King’s Lynn News Advertiser and got on with the team instantly. Mr Toye (who had been teaching for 15 years, most recently at Downham Market High School) got to know the voluntary sector and local organisations very quickly. At that time, WNDiS shared an office space with the West Norfolk Deaf Association who were (and as of 2021, still are) based on Railway Road in the former Oddfellows’ Hall and were jointly funded by the West Norfolk Health Authority and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council.
Mr Toye took on the challenge of coordinating The Disability Access Guide, that had not been updated for five years. “It’s a two-fold process to get the information to the disabled and seeing where they can shop, eat and bank comfortably, while giving a nudge to the owners and making them aware of the access issue,” said Mr Toye to the Lynn News in December 1999.
Although the Disability Discrimination Act was created in 1995, it was legal for businesses to not adhere to it until the Disabilty Discrimination Act (Part III) in 1999. This meant that through the investigation by WNDiS, local businesses would have to make some tangible changes to improve their accessibility to disabled people by 2004, or be breaking the law. But equality rights for disabled people has always been the wider target for WNDiS and, as Mr. Toye explained to the Downham Citizen in February 2000, “The whole point is that rather than merely complying with the law, we should all be able to use all public buildings without a second thought.”
To raise awareness of the other services WNDiS provided to the local area, a competition for school children to create a poster for the organisation was held. In March 2000, it was announced that the overall winner was ten-year-old Katie Martin, of Gooderstone, and a special award went to nine-year-old Hannah Bates, of Denver, with prizes donated by local pen-makers Sanford UK.
Activism and Advocacy
WNDiS began their work in activism and advocacy at the start of the 2000’s, as there was a huge need for it from disabled individuals as well as the community as a whole. From putting the pressure on Downham banks to be truly accessible in their new designs, and joining demonstrations over dangerous road crossings with the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People. Mr. Toye’s regular column in the Eastern Daily Press (“Access All Areas”) continually raised awareness of the everyday discrimination and challenges that disabled people in West Norfolk faced and made sure that these topics were always on the agenda in the local press.
“We are disabled not by our impairment, but by the barriers placed in our way – whether these are steps, or doors that will not open, or an attitude that excludes. Awareness is all.” – Jonathan Toye, Eastern Daily Press, November 2001.
WNDiS began advocating for individuals in the small claims court around issues of benefit claims, discrimination at work or school, housing complaints and more. They also supported the campaigns of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, now renamed Equal Lives, including pressuring companies to take action on access issues within Norfolk.
At Thetford Railway Station disability groups had campaigned to have a crossing installed across railway lines at the station for almost 20 years. There was no access to Platform 1 for anyone who couldn’t climb the high pedestrian footbridge over the tracks. This had meant that disabled passengers travelling from Norwich to Thetford could get to Thetford, but couldn’t make the return journey because they couldn’t get to the platform where their train would stop. It forced hundreds to either continue 30 miles more down the line to Ely, where there was an underpass, or take a taxi home (that would at that time have cost around £40). On Friday April 12th 2002, the NCDP with support from Mr. Toye and WNDiS, held a protest demanding that Central Trains take action on the issue.
WNDiS supported Keith Roads, then chairman of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, in taking Central Trains to court over the issue in a bid to make the train firm provide a specially adapted taxi to shuttle wheelchair users to the platform. On March 6th 2004, the case was dismissed by Norwich County Court. However, this was not the end of their pursuit for legal recognition on the issue, and on November 5th of the same year the group organised and took members down to London to put the case to the Court of Appeal.
It took them a full day but Lord Justice Sedley overturned the decision of the county court judge and awarded £1097 in damages for discrimination to Mr Roads, opening the door to future claims from other members of disabled community. This was a big win for WNDiS, who at that time were an organisation less than a decade old. This win was celebrated by the community, including two recognised names: Peter White, then BBC’s Disability Affairs Correspondent who was the first totally blind person to produce reports for television news and disabled lawyer and activist Caroline Gooding, who played a leading role in implementing the Disability Discrimination Act and ensuring improvements in disability rights legislation.
Unfortunately, the judge said the court’s decision was likely to be of limited wider impact, because lawyers for the train company had “specifically excluded” the cost of providing a taxi from the court’s decision-making process on whether it was a “reasonable solution”.
As of June 2021, the step-free access situation at Thetford Station has not been fully resolved, although transport (such as more accessible taxis) are more common. According to Greater Anglia’s website there is still only: “Step free access to each platform, but not between platforms. For trains towards Norwich access is via a footpath off Croxton Road, for trains towards Ely the step free access is through the station car park off Station Road.” – Thetford Train Station Information.
Disability Benefit Campaigns
Protest Against Cuts to Personal Budgets.
Click to Enlarge
In 2017, there was a danger that WNDiS would have to close due to lack of funding. It won a reprieve in February when the Clinical Commissioning Group decided that they would continue to fund it for 2 more years. In 2021 a decision was made to fund it for a further year until April 2022.
After more than 20 years WNDiS is still valued and funded locally. Have a look at Kevin’s story to see how WNDiS supports people in West Norfolk.