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Grenfell Tower - Neglect Of The Most Vulnerable

23/06/2017 11:03

I was woken on the morning of the Grenfell Tower fire by text alerts. My friends who lived there had escaped from their fifth floor flat. They were one level higher than where the fire started and whilst shocked, were alive.

Far too many people have perished in the blaze. Every disabled person I've spoken to since the fire has asked one question. Why were disabled people housed in a high rise tower with no chance of escape?

I've only read of two disabled people who were rescued from the flames. One of whom was disabled woman. She was only able to flee the building because her son carried her down 24 flights of stairs.

The other was a blind man on the 11th floor who waved a towel out of his window to attract attention. His rescue later that day by the fire officers, was almost miraculous.

Disabled people are often re-housed because of a need to live in a property that is adapted for wheelchair access. There is no legal obligation on the part of council workers to ensure that the disabled person can easily escape from their home in case of fire.

The situation if a disabled person is living in residential or nursing care is completely different. Care home staff have regular fire training. Practice fire drills are undertaken to ensure staff know how residents should be evacuated. Both of which are legal obligations as part of the inspections by the Care Quality Commission.

So why are people in the community at so much greater risk? Why are their lives less important? Is this more than the rich/poor divide which is so evident from the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

My current adapted is easy to escape from. Previously I lived in a flat that was part of a Victorian conversion. It was virtually impossible for me to escape from that flat unaided. I was living there alone. My downstairs neighbour was a heavy drinker and smoker. With only wood and plasterboard between our flats, fire was a constant worry.

I have several friends with disabilities who cannot escape from their homes without assistance. One friend, Caroline, cannot use her wheelchair to get in and out of her flat. New fire doors were installed, making the doorways too narrow for her chair to get through.

There is a statutory duty for care home residents to have an escape plan for fire as part of a general risk assessment. Why is this not also required for disabled people living in their own homes?

One obvious reason is cost. Poor and disabled people are clearly at the bottom of the pile when it comes to getting safe housing. The relatively small amounts of money it would have cost to use a different type of cladding and have a sprinkler system in place at Grenfell is evidence enough that the lives of the poor have no value.

The attitude of many councils can be paraphrased in three sentences. As long as people have a roof over their heads, don't complain if it's a fire risk. The poor and disabled don't count - their votes don't matter. We don't care if they live in unsafe flats without adequate protection from fire.

In January 2016 Conservative MPs voted against proposed new rules requiring private sector landlords to ensure their properties are fit for human habitation.

Labour MPs proposed an amendment to the government's housing and planning bill. This would have ensured that all rented accommodation was safe for people to live in. The amendment was defeated by 312 votes to 219 a majority of 93.

Many of those MPs who voted against the bill are landlords themselves, so it was clearly not in their own interests to support the amendment.

Of the estimated 600 people living in Grenfell Tower, statistically at least 100 will have some from of disability. Many of those people will have been assessed by social workers. Why do we hear nothing about them?

Surely now, whenever a Care and Support Plan is drawn up for a child, someone with disabilities or an elderly person, it must contain a Fire Risk Assessment?

Part of the assessment should be checking exits to a building, ensuring they are fully accessible. Checks on ensuring there are fire alarms and sprinkler systems in blocks of flats are essential. Everyone should be able to escape safely from their own home.

A Fire Risk Assessment would enable family members, social workers and care agencies to know if a property is safe for that child or adult to live in. If the property is unsafe, another more suitable property must be found.

Yes, this will cost money. But the whole issue of how social housing is funded and managed will need to be reviewed as a consequence of Grenfell Tower. Part of this review must include safe and accessible housing for disabled people.

We should all be safe in the homes we live in. We have an extra duty to protect children and adults who are vulnerable because of disability. That duty must be enshrined in law.

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