Plea not to cut Norfolk’s sensory support team

Campaigners are calling for a rethink on plans to axe a pioneering service to support deaf/blind people in Norfolk.

The county is one of the few places in Britain that offers a centralised system of support beyond the legal minimum for people with visual and hearing impairments.

But, with Norfolk County Council looking to bridge a �155m funding gap amid government cuts, the authority has put forward a proposal to axe the service as part of its Big Conversation plans.

That would mean the council would only offer the service it needed to provide by law, such as keeping a register of blind people and helping them to gain a personalised budget.

Discretionary services, such as the rehabilitation workers who help people around the house or with day-to-day tasks, are all at risk.

The plans have dismayed users, staff and outside organisations with dealings with the service; last month, about 50 deaf people were among the hundreds who took part in an anti-cuts rally at Norwich City Hall. Staff and users of the service were also out in force during a protest march in the city earlier this month.

The unit, which has 32 staff, costs �1.1m to run, deals with 2,000 assess-ments a year and has 1,962 people receiving its services. Critics fear the changes will end up costing more in the longer term as people have to move into residential care or become more isolated and marginalised.

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Verity Gibson, former county mana-ger for the service, and who set it up in 1990, said she was “poleaxed” when she heard it could be forced to close.

“The reason the service was set up is because it was recognised that services for people who were visually and hearing impaired were marginalised in mainstream social care,” she said.

“Norfolk was at the forefront of setting up a combined sensory support team, bringing it all together to give it a higher focus. If you look at it in hard terms, it saves the county council money because, if people can stay in their own homes and look after themselves, you do not need to put them into residential care.”

David Harwood, council cabinet member for adult and community services, said he was aware of the huge amount of concern about the proposal, hinting the service could be spared the axe if money could be found.

But that would probably see the service being redesigned – and it is not clear how much of its existing work would be picked up by charities and voluntary groups.

Mr Harwood said. “If there is a possibility of continuing this it will be seriously considered, because we do know how important it is to people. If there is money there to continue this, we will look to do a redesign of the service to try and make it work better for people.

“What we have here in Norfolk is a gilt-edged service, but not all authorities offer that service.”