IN HIS late eighties, years after a quadruple heart bypass and the first of two badly-needed knee replacements, my late father was still refusing to be seen in public with a walking stick, despite finding it agony to go more than a few paces.

He lived on his own in a small village and driving out to the shops provided one of the few chances he had to socialise and avoid isolation.

Yet, because he could walk and drive, he would frequently hear mutterings from bystanders when he stepped out of his car after parking in a space marked Disabled Only. After years of doing so without comment when unloading my mother’s wheelchair, he found this unsettling. He was, of course, registered disabled on several counts and perfectly entitled to park where he did. Like many, had he not been able to get easy access, he would have been unable to shop for himself at all.

But those mutterings and pointed fingers are an example of the kind of avaricious and mean-spirited sentiments that have already greeted proposals by the Government to extend the blue badges scheme to people with “hidden disabilities.”

The proposals are aimed at people with conditions such as autism and dementia and have rightly been welcomed by those who know and understand these debilitating mental health issues.

The move, which will be the biggest change to the blue badge scheme since its introduction in 1970, will help to create parity in the treatment of physical and mental health and make it easier for those who previously did not qualify to work, socialise and access shops and services. About 2.4 million people in England have a blue badge and local councils interpret the rules in different ways. The Government hopes the new policy will provide “clear and consistent” guidelines to level the playing field.

Given the way some people react to not-immediately-obvious physical disabilities, the challenge will be to get those who jealously covet these easy access parking spaces to understand why people with “hidden” mental health issues should be allowed a blue badge.

Only a few weeks ago, Bradford Council revealed that the number of drivers fined for wrongly parking in disabled spaces had increased in each of the last three years. Between April 2014 and October last year, 13,285 drivers were fined for abusing the system.

Blue badges enable those who qualify to stop for free in disabled parking bays and for up to three hours on yellow lines and many councils also allow free parking in pay-and-display car parks.

Government research suggests that up to 75 per cent of blue badge holders would get out and about far less without one, so cheating or deliberately using a space allocated for someone with a disability is a particularly mean-minded and, frankly, disgusting way to behave. The proposed changes also include blue badge assessments being carried out by a greater variety of health care professionals who are better able to work out whether mental health is causing mobility issues.

Sarah Lambert, the Head of Policy at the National Autistic Society, said there were an estimated 700,000 autistic people in the UK: “Whilst every person on the autism spectrum is different, for some, not being able to park in a predictable place close to a destination can cause a great deal of anxiety and put their safety at risk.”

“Some autistic people can experience too much information from the environment around them on public transport, while other autistic people might not be aware of dangers on the road.”

Not enough people understand autism and dementia and the impact they can have and, unless the parking changes are accompanied by extensive efforts to educate them, it is highly likely that the increase in the number of blue badge holders will also prompt more abuse because the cheaters will see more people who “don’t look disabled” to them “getting away with it.”

That must not stop the proposals going ahead but it does mean the roll-out could be more complicated than it appears.

Pioneers spell out a way to better literacy levels

LITERACY and numeracy underpin all learning, so anything which helps to improve either – particularly at a young age – is to be welcomed.

Reading and writing is a major issue in parts of this district and the Bradford Schools Literacy Pledge is an innovative approach to focussing on this crucial challenge. So far, 20 schools have signed up to the National Literacy Trust scheme which commits them to improving their literacy strategy, community engagement and classroom work.

These pioneers deserve praise for their commitment; let’s hope they can inspire many others to join them.

City score a winning goal with new idea to support veterans

FOOTBALL may be the meaning of life for some people but, for others, it could be a lifeline to a less lonely future. That’s the thinking behind a brilliant new scheme by Bradford City Community Foundation to help combat social isolation among armed forces veterans.

Helped by a £20,000 grant from the MoD’s Armed Forces Covenant, it will provide social activities for men and women and could initially include tours of the ground and trips to watch the Bantams.

Hopefully, the scheme – to launch on February 7 at Valley Parade (10am) – will create opportunities to find new friends and support networks.

The Foundation wants to spread the idea and it would be great to see other clubs, such as Bradford Bulls and Bradford & Bingley RUFC, joining in. Football might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it’s a great place to start.