Belfast Telegraph

Army veteran with no legs told to prove he's disabled to get assistance benefit

Ex-soldier left in a wheelchair by bomb in Afghanistan faces bureaucratic nightmare at Stormont after election as UUP MLA

By Suzanne Breen

A newly-elected Ulster Unionist politician who lost his legs serving in Afghanistan has said it is "shocking and humiliating" that he is being asked to prove he is disabled in order to secure an assistance benefit at Stormont.

East Belfast MLA Andy Allen also described accessibility for disabled people in Parliament Buildings as "sub-standard".

"I would have expected the Assembly to be leading the way on these issues and setting an example for the rest of Northern Ireland," he said.

"Instead, the exact opposite is the case and fighting for improved facilities has been a torturous process."

The former Royal Irish Regiment soldier was 19 when his right leg was blown off and his left leg badly injured by a makeshift bomb while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2008. His left leg was later amputated.

He was blinded by the blast, although he has now regained 30% of his eyesight.

Mr Allen qualifies for a disabled MLA's allowance, which would let him employ a driver who could also help him get in and out of cars while on Assembly or constituency business.

"Even thought I am clearly disabled, the Independent Financial Review Panel have told me I need to see occupational health services to have my condition assessed and prove I am disabled," he said.

"That is nuts. To say it galls me is an understatement.

"I have two missing legs. I think my condition is pretty clear.

"I don't think myself or anyone with an obvious disability should have to undergo such an assessment. People should be left with their dignity."

"The Independent Financial Review Panel would be better off trying to ensure there are disabled facilities at MLAs' constituency offices, rather than make me and others jump through hoops to prove we're disabled."

Mr Allen said he would far rather be able to drive himself without assistance "but unfortunately I just can't physically do that," he said.

The UUP MLA added: "This is not about 'poor me,' but if another disabled person sees the system works for me, then they will think they can do it too and it will encourage them to fully participate in society. When they see hurdles being placed in my way, they will think there's no point in them trying to lead full lives."

Mr Allen, a 27-year-old father of two, was co-opted into Stormont last September to replace outgoing MLA Michael Copeland. He was elected in his own right in the Assembly election earlier this month.

Six years ago, he helped found a charity for British Army veterans and their families in Northern Ireland.

Mr Allen claimed that while the staff in Parliament Buildings were "absolutely great", changes to make the premises more accessible to the disabled were progressing at "a snail's pace".

He said: "When I came into Stormont nine months ago, promises were made to improve accessibility.

"Proposals were put to the Assembly Commission and they were costed and signed off.

"I thought I was coming back after the election to a fully accessible building, but nothing had happened."

Mr Allen said that a ramp should be installed at the front of Parliament Buildings to take disabled visitors into the Great Hall.

"At the moment they have to negotiate their way through the coffee shop, which can be very busy, and then fight off tourists to reach the lift," he added.

The UUP MLA called for automatic opening doors to be installed throughout the building.

"At present, only the front door opens automatically. If you have one hand full of documents and the other is steering your wheelchair, it is very hard to push open the numerous heavy doors along the corridors."

Mr Allen also called for the lifts to be upgraded so disabled people would be able to independently use them to leave the building in the event of fire, rather than having to abandon their wheelchair and be moved downstairs by others in a specialised evacuation chair.

The UUP MLA said: "It should never have taken me to come into Stormont to raise these issues.

"The Assembly should have had such basic things in place long ago. It's frustrating and totally unacceptable that they didn't.

"Disabled people regularly visit Parliament Buildings to meet MLAs and to attend events in the Long Gallery. Hopefully, improvements in accessibility will happen soon to ensure that everyone's visit to Stormont is pleasant and stress-free."

Belfast Telegraph


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