As part of the government’s initiative to build a society that works for people of all abilities, the Blue Badge scheme will extend to people with ‘hidden’ disabilities.

In the biggest revamp of the system since the 1970s, the government will offer accessible parking for people who have difficulty travelling, including those with ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as autism and mental health conditions.

Inclusive travel

Beginning early next year, people with hidden or ‘invisible’ disabilities will become eligible to access the Blue Badge scheme, helping to reduce the obstacles many of these people and their carers face when travelling.

The government wants to make sure people with the greatest need have access to Blue Badges while ensuring the current scheme continues to be workable.

The Blue Badge scheme allows people with physical disabilities to park closer to their destination than other drivers, due to the difficulty they face from using public transport or walking long distances.

In an aim to make the UK transport network inclusive by 2030, the government aims to improve the accessibility of all transport modes across the UK.

These changes come after an eight-week consultation and as part of the government’s drive for more equality between physical and mental health conditions.

At present, people with non-physical disabilities may be eligible for a Blue Badge, but current rules don’t give clear guidelines, leaving eligibility open to interpretation.

A Blue Badge allows drivers or their carers to park close to their destination and is only for on-street parking. Off-street car parks, such as supermarket car parks, hospitals, or car parks provided by the local authority fall under separate rules. The charge for a Blue Badge is £10, and it’s valid for three years.

A lifeline for the disabled

The Department for Transport reports that around three out of four people say they would go out less often if they did not have a Blue Badge, so the extension to the Blue Badge scheme to autistic people and any necessary carers will make a distressing—sometimes impossible—experience of travelling, easier.

Transport Minister Jesse Norman said Blue Badges are “a lifeline for disabled people”, giving them the freedom and confidence to get to work and visit friends and that the changes will make sure the scheme extends to people with hidden disabilities so they can “enjoy the freedoms that many of us take for granted.”

The new criteria will increase eligibility of the scheme to people unable to make a journey without risk of serious harm to their health or safety—or that of any other person.

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said the changes to the Blue Badge scheme will “make a massive difference to the lives of many of the 600,000 autistic people in England, and their families.”

She added: “Just leaving the house is a challenge for many autistic people, involving detailed preparation – and sometimes overwhelming anxiety about plans going wrong.” and explained that certain autistic people might not know of the dangers of the road, that the person may become overwhelmed by busy or loud environments, and the possibility of not being able to find a parking space near where you’re going can mean people with autism “can’t contemplate leaving the house at all.”

The scheme will also help people with mental illness or dementia, who can’t embark on a journey without this causing them considerable psychological distress—the person with the badge need not be the driver.

Misuse and judgment

While off-street car park operators should offer parking spaces for disabled people, don’t assume those with a Blue Badge can always park for free. The car park owner to decide this.

The Blue Badge isn’t a licence to park anywhere. Like other road users, badge holders must obey the road rules outlined in the Highway Code. For instance, Blue Badge holders cannot park where a ban on loading or unloading is in place and Central London has areas where the Blue Badge doesn’t apply. If the badge holder or their driver parks anywhere they may cause an obstruction, or are a danger to other road users, they can receive a fine, a Penalty Charge Notice, or have their vehicle removed.

It’s a criminal offence for a Blue Badge holder, or anyone else, to misuse the badge and could cause a £1,000 fine and the badge being confiscated. While the misuse of Blue Badges happens, the person we observe walking back to the supermarket car park—with what appears to be ease—might be a carer, sent to get something the badge holder needed.

What’s also plausible is that the person suffers one of the many ‘hidden’ illnesses, such as Cystic Fibrosis, yet are experiencing a day where they’re able to walk a short distance without obvious difficulty.

Speak to a person with an invisible illness, who has no outward signs of disability or ill health, and it’s unusual if they don’t have at least one experience of being challenged (or even threatened) by a complete stranger, for using disabled facilities—be that a toilet or a parking space.

Disabled parking spaces get used not only by those with a genuine need but also by healthy and able-bodied people who disregard the rules about parking in disabled spaces, just to have a shorter distance to walk—something they may find an expensive move to make.

There are many Blue Badge holders who have concerns about the changes to the scheme who say they already struggle to find an unoccupied disabled space. They’re concerned next year’s changes will make the situation even more difficult. We shall have to see whether places such as supermarkets will react by offering more designated spaces.

Apply for or renew a Blue Badge.

What’s your view on the eligibility of the Blue Badge scheme for people with ‘hidden’ disabilities? Are you aware of someone whose life may be easier after the changes government will make to travel accessibility? Are you concerned about changes to the scheme? Let us know in the comments.

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