People with physical and psychological disabilities often come up against brick walls in many aspects of their lives, but it is particularly difficult for them when one of these is their relationship with the authorities who, paradoxically, are supposed to cushion their difficulties by providing assistance, resources and documentation to accredit their special circumstances.
Confirmation of their level of disability, parking permits for people with reduced mobility, certificates of early retirement, reports to justify their need and eligibility for an adapted home, access to loans and social benefits - these are just some of the processes handled by the Disability Assessment Centre (CVD) in Malaga, but even after two shock programmes to improve the system, not only has the waiting time not reduced but it has actually become worse.
Because of the pandemic this service, which is run by the Junta de Andalucía's Ministry of Equality, Social Policies and Conciliation, has experienced even longer delays than normal in processing applications for assessment, so whereas people were already having to wait about a year and a half, it is now more likely to be two years before their assessment is completed at this centre in Malaga.
This increase in waiting time means the province is now the one with the longest delays, compared with other evaluation centres in the region. This is despite the fact that, in July last year, the regional government set up a three-month programme (from August to October) to reduce the backlog and has repeated it again this summer.
The 19 extra professionals who were contracted for this purpose in 2020 did speed up the processing and they worked overtime in the afternoons to shorten the waiting lists, paying special attention for cases involving children.
According to the data provided by the Ministry, during those three months in 2020 a total of 2,043 assessments were carried out, which was over three times more than the 560 in the same period in 2019.
For the 2021 programme an extra 15 people were taken on and the results are expected to be similar, but the number of applications is still far higher than the service's resources. In fact, the CVD itself has been telling users that they should make an official complaint about the delays, which at the moment are two years.
SUR has seen an official letter which has been sent to people who had asked about progress in their case, and it makes reference to the centre being overwhelmed: "This Assessment Centre has verified that your application for Recognition of Degree of Disability... is being processed. We advise you that disability assessments are currently taking about two years from the time the application is registered."
These delays, which can also be checked via the disability information phone number in Andalucía (900 555 564), have exacerbated the situation at the CVD in Malaga, and it was something that been building up not just from before the pandemic but for a long time before that crisis began.
The Junta de Andalucía says these centres "had accumulated a long backlog of work with no change in the structure, organisation or procedures in the past 15 years," and among the main causes for this collapse it refers to "the ageing population, the economic crisis, the high rate of structural unemployment, new duties assigned under regulations, new situations resulting from Covid-19, etc".
The figures before the pandemic were as follows: every day the centre registered between 150 and 180 applications for general procedures (such as certificates, information and, above all, disability assessments) and the professionals completed more than 70 assessments each day. In other words, more than 1,440 a month and about 12,000 a year.
It should also be noted that Malaga is not only the worst province in Andalucía in terms of delays - it is also the one with the fewest staff, if you take into account the ratio of the disabled population of the province.
The most recent update of the statistics shows that Malaga has around 120,000 people with at least 33 per cent disability, higher than the figure for Seville, where it is fewer than 114,000.
If the focus is placed on resources, the assessment centre in Malaga has nine teams (each includes a doctor, a psychologist and a social worker) and around a dozen administrative staff, while in Seville city there are twelve of these specialist teams.
The increase in the waiting list obliges those in charge of the service to use a triage system similar to that used in the Emergency department of a hospital. The technicians evaluate how urgent each application is when it arrives, in accordance with criteria set by regulations, and if a case is considered to fulfil the conditions to be classified as extremely urgent, it goes automatically to the top of the list. In essence, this would only occur if the life of the patient is seriously compromised. The remainder, who are the majority, are then dealt with in turn.
"What this means is that something which is meant to be the start of a solution for someone with disability turns into the main problem," complains Alfredo de Pablos, president of an association called Agrupación de Desarrollo Málaga Accesible. It consists of about 80 associations which are linked to disability and has been coming up against this "impossible bottleneck" at the CVD in Malaga for years.
"You have to bear in mind that without this document to prove the level of disability, children with problems cannot go to school, people can't access assistance, or therapies, or parking permits for people with limited mobility," says De Pablos, referring to just some of the problems caused by the delays.
He says the associations, which are the first place people tend to go to when faced with delays, asking for help with their applications, "are desperate" and are planning to ask for a formal meeting with Patricia Navarro, the regional government's Malaga representative, to put their case to her.
With regard to this collapse of the system, the regional government's Ministry of Equality, through the General Directorate for People with Disability and Inclusion, has said that it is "working to improve the service in all the assessment centres in Andalucía and especially in this one in Malaga province because of the high numbers of applications it deals with."
The shock plan (which is currently underway), streamlining processing through modernised technology and a new appointments system are among the measures they plan to use to achieve this.