THE blue badge permit scheme was extended a year ago to include people with non-visible disabilities such as autism, dementia and anxiety.

But an investigation has found a “shocking disparity” between the approval rates of people with non-visible disabilities and those with physical disabilities.

The new rules, which the Department for Transport said was “the biggest change to the scheme in nearly 50 years, enabled people with disabilities such as anxiety disorders or brain injury to apply for a permit, allowing them to park for free in pay-and-display spaces across the UK and for up to three hours on yellow lines.

Freedom of Information figures have revealed that many councils had lower approval rates for blue badges from non-visible disabilities applicants, since the new criteria were introduced on August 30, 2019.

For ten UK councils the difference was so stark, it was more than 50 percentage points between the two types of application including Durham County Council.

James Taylor, executive director strategy impact and social change at disability equality charity Scope, said: “This new data shows a shocking disparity between the allocations of blue badges to people with invisible and visible impairments.

“Our helpline has also heard from disabled people with hidden impairments being denied a Blue Badge, for “not qualifying”.

“This research highlights the urgent need for staff training of the decision makers in the councils, so they can recognize and understand the range of hidden impairment.

“Councils need also to understand the devastating impact their negative decision can have.”

The National Autistic Society said the FOI analysis showed how important it was for councils to improve staff training so they understood when people should be entitled to a “lifeline” blue badge parking permit.

Tim Nicholls, from the National Autistic Society, said a blue badge could facilitate journeys with a carer for someone with autism who may not be able to understand or react to the dangers of the road.

The permit could also help someone with autism overcome their anxiety over not finding a parking space or things going wrong on a trip, which could stop them from leaving the house entirely, he said.

The investigation found that Durham County Council approved 10,927, or 85.43 per cent, of the 12,791 applications it received since August 30, 2019 but less than a third of the 414 made under the hidden disability criteria.

Bosses insist all applications are treated equally and that the difference could be down to an influx from people who were unaware of the evidence needed to qualify.

Andy Palmer, the council’s head of transformation, said: “Those who qualify for a blue badge can apply through the government’s online site or through our application form, both of which incorporate the physical and hidden disability factors of managing a journey outdoors.

“We assess every application equally and individually based on the evidence provided against the criteria from the Department for Transport (DfT) guidance. If there is not enough information provided at the application stage, we offer a further assessment via telephone or face-to-face where it is safe to do so, as well as an opportunity to provide further supporting medical evidence to determine the applicant’s eligibility.

“The hidden disability criteria were introduced in August 2019 with very specific conditions as to the evidence required. As a result, it is reasonable to assume an influx of applications were submitted by those who had not previously been able to access the blue badge application service and believed they could qualify without knowing sufficient evidence is required by DfT.

“As this is a relatively new regulation, we are working with applicants to ensure they understand and have the opportunity to provide the supporting evidence which will confirm their eligibility.”

Close behind was Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council with a 49.1 per cent difference in the rates of approval between the two sets of criteria. Just 38.5 per cent of the 226 people who applied under the hidden disability criteria had their blue badges approved, but the council said it was still awaiting further evidence to go with dozens and decisions are made by a qualified medical professional.

Lower approval rates for blue badge parking permits from non-visible disability applicants were revealed in North Yorkshire (46.1 per cent), Middlesbrough (20.3 per cent), Newcastle (26.9 per cent) and Redcar and Cleveland (14.5 per cent).

Darlington Borough Council was one of the few that recorded a higher approval rate for those with ‘hidden disabilities’, albeit just a 0.7 per cent difference, with 57 of the 74 applications approved in that category.

The Department for Transport said it will review the impact of the new criteria.