Grants give user-led disability charities ‘breathing space’ in fight for survival


Some of the user-led disability organisations that have suffered most from the effects of public spending cuts have won government grants aimed at guaranteeing their short-term survival.

The Department of Health grants come from a fund set up to support charities which would “not otherwise have survived to the end of the financial year”.

Optua, the Suffolk-based disabled people’s organisation (DPO), was awarded nearly £49,000, while MDF The Bipolar Organisation, which is also user-led, will receive £35,000.

Optua said the money would help cover an expected deficit for 2010-11 and “help us through a difficult period”.

An Optua spokesman said: “Funding for organisations like ours has always been a challenge but the recent economic situation, coupled with changes in the way some services for disabled people are paid for, has made life particularly difficult for us.”

Although MDF’s future had not been in doubt, Suzanne Hudson, the charity’s chief executive, said that without the funding its national network of self-help groups, which is the “largest service we have and is the heart and soul of the charity”, would have had to be “cut and withdrawn”.

She said MDF was facing “immense challenges” due to the economic climate, as well as “unprecedented” demand for its services.

She added: “If we do not get through this there is no other organisation out there doing what we do. We have to get through it.”

Assist UK, which leads the national network of Disabled Living Centres – which provide free, impartial advice on independent living equipment – received a £50,000 grant.

Alan Norton, Assist UK’s chief executive, said the money would give the charity “a little bit of breathing space” following the loss of core funding from the government last year, although the future was still “bleak”.

He said nine disabled living centres were set to fold at the end of March because they had had council funding withdrawn, while Assist UK itself would probably have to start selling equipment in order to remain financially sustainable.

Norton said there were “mixed feelings” about this decision, because of the risk to the charity’s reputation for impartiality.

But he said: “I do not think there is any alternative. The government need to see that it is cost-effective to empower us to do what we need to do.”

Only last month, the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into the mobility aids market, following concerns that disabled consumers were not being treated fairly by the industry, with some firms exploiting their lack of information.

Whitby and District Disablement Action Group (WDDAG), another user-led charity, said that its £13,500 grant would “tide us over for three or four months”.

Nigel Staton, manager of WDDAG, said the charity – which provides services across a “very large, isolated, rural” area, had been “close” to having to shut at the end of January, although the situation improved slightly in February.

He said the public sector funding squeeze had “played a big part” in creating this situation. WDDAG has now been forced to start charging for all its services.

Other user-led organisations that have secured grants include CHANGE, which received £65,000, and Speakup Self Advocacy, which received £48,000. Both charities work with people with learning difficulties.

Annie Ferguson, Speakup’s principal supporter, said its future had been “very much” in doubt and “remains uncertain”, although the grant would “give us a breathing space”.

Although the local council had been “really supportive”, she said the financial situation had caused other potential sources of funding to be “over-whelmed” with competing applications.

Several other self-advocacy organisations had approached Speakup for help because they were struggling financially, she added.

Philipa Bragman, director of CHANGE, said it would not have closed without the grant, but had been facing a financial deficit in 2010-11 and another deficit in 2011-12, again largely due to the public sector funding squeeze.

But she said CHANGE’s long-term survival was still not guaranteed and “could swing either way”.

She said: “We have been in a difficult situation. If that deficit had continued it would have been really serious. This is breathing space money.”

Because of the increasing competition for grants from the big charities, CHANGE is focusing increasingly on revenue-generating activities such as producing accessible books and CD-roms and providing training – all delivered by people with learning difficulties on equal salaries to staff without learning difficulties – as well as developing partnerships with other organisations.

CHANGE is also supporting five self-advocacy organisations that are “really struggling” due to funding problems.

3 March 2011