ON THE GROUND: Centre for Independent Living, Belfast

Dominic Wood

Scheme: Direct Payments assistance

Funding: £70,000 from the Eastern Health and Social Services Board

Objectives: To raise awareness of Direct Payments as an option for disabled people to achieve independence, as part of its promotion of independent living

In 1996, the UK Government passed legislation that empowered disabled people in Northern Ireland to hire and fire their own personal assistants.

This was referred to as 'Direct Payments' because assistants were paid directly, rather than through social services.

Five years later, after a small number of disabled people had muddled through a largely unexplained system designed to give them increased control over their lives, the Centre for Independent Living was founded to offer guidance and training on Direct Payments.

"Direct Payments gives me greater freedom and flexibility in my life," said Anita Gracey, a disabled Belfast resident, who has hired her own carer for two years. "I thought it would be more difficult but it's actually fairly straightforward and it's good to have somewhere to go for help."

Paul Anderson, the centre's personal assistance adviser, works with disabled people to enable them to make an informed choice about Direct Payments.

"We take the mystery out of the system," he said. "Most people manage them without any great difficulty and will testify that the benefits far outweigh any extra responsibilities involved."

The centre plays a crucial role, says project co-ordinator Philomena McCrory, because it is still "the only support system for Direct Payments that we know of in Northern Ireland".

"Before Direct Payments were available, disabled people were individually needs-assessed by Social Services Trusts, which decided on the staff they were given," said McCrory. "But disabled people campaigned for control over who should help them and when - and the payments option was introduced."

The centre offers training to social services staff and social workers as well as disabled people. In 2003, it provided around 50 such sessions to 750 people.

Enquiries to the centre have increased year on year since it began the service, and it handled 200 telephone enquiries about the Direct Payments system last year.

The Carers and Disabled Payments Act, set to come into force in Northern Ireland in a few months, will reduce the age at which disabled people are allowed to access Direct Payments from 18 to 16.

McCrory thinks the act will make Social Services Trusts take the system more seriously, and it is exploring the possibility of extending its services beyond eastern Northern Ireland.

- See features, pp18-22.

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