By Tom McDonough
A disabled people’s organisation is to mark its success in reaching its 30th birthday as a user-led organisation, despite facing a decade of funding challenges and austerity, and the recent challenges posed by the pandemic.
CHOICE IN HACKNEY, based in east London, was founded in 1992 and has grown since then from a staff of two providing a single service from a small office in a hospital into a community hub with nine staff members and 90 volunteers.
Caroline Nelson, CHOICE’s chief executive, said: “Thirty years ago we started as a small advocacy project and now CHOICE has grown into a community resource with service-users who return to us again and again to dip into our broad range of services.”
She added: “Another key achievement is that we have continued to be run by and for disabled people, demonstrating that we are in tune with our client group at a grassroots level and can identify with their needs and aspirations in an empathetic way.”
CHOICE’s 30th anniversary celebrations have been put on hold until next year because of the cost-of-living crisis and an expected new wave of Covid infections.
Nelson (pictured) said the organisation’s key achievements included its success in diversifying its funding sources and plugging into consortiums that enable it to link with other disabled people’s organisations.
She said: “Over the years, our funding sources have also grown from having our initial two small funders (the local and health authorities) to having a diverse range of funders that include trusts, banks, foundations and central government, allowing us to expand our services and also our service-users and geographic reach.
“CHOICE has also formed an integral part of many consortiums and works in partnership with other DDPOs*.
“This allows us to reach out to more disabled people and raise awareness of the service we provide.”
Funding difficulties had been the key challenge facing her organisation over the last three decades.
She said: “The ability to have a continuous, sustainable supply of funding remains the biggest challenge.
“Pre-pandemic it was a real struggle to be able to continue our services without dipping into our small reserves.
“Funding pots were shrinking and too many charities were scrambling for them.”
There are now more pots of funding available, but many offer only short-term support and require an intensive amount of work to bid for – with no guarantee of success – tying up staff who could be supporting the organisation’s other services.
Paul Salt, CHOICE’s community volunteer officer, said: “Funding is the main challenge, and it has become especially difficult under the last 12 years of austerity measures, which have seen charity grants slashed and the entire sector come under enormous stress.
“And pressure on the care system and NHS during austerity has passed on terrible burdens to our service-users, making it very hard to support them.
“However, the perseverance of the team ensures disabled people still have a voice to fight for their rights.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have given CHOICE some pointers as to what it should and can do next to remain in step with the needs of disabled people.
During the pandemic, disabled people became more isolated and their need for advocacy support grew stronger as vital services were suspended or reduced and fundamental safeguards were peeled back under the Coronavirus Act.
Nelson said: “This is another opportunity for us to introduce disabled people to services such as confidence-building because they have spent months locked indoors with little or no engagement while being denied their rights.”
She added: “For the future we’d like to extend our offer of independent advocacy and training services which we currently provide to other London boroughs even further.
“We know this is possible now as during the lockdown people joined our training courses online from all over the UK.”
CHOICE says it has taken its lead from disabled people in deciding which services to set up.
Its flagship advocacy service has grown to offer support to disabled people with a wide range of needs.
Salt said: “Our advocates help service-users to fight for what they are entitled to.
“For example, one service-user, who has physical disabilities and limited mobility, was assisted to move into suitable housing when the local authority was telling him to go to an inaccessible hostel.
“By arguing the point of law that disabled people must be given priority in social housing, the advocate was able to support the client to immediately move into a newly available flat on the ground floor of a new housing block. The paint was still wet!”
Other services offered by CHOICE include a programme to support disabled people into taking up regular gentle exercise; a befriending service; and support for survivors of hate crime.
The training programme originally focused on supporting disabled people to advocate for themselves, but it is now independently accredited and includes hate crime and domestic violence modules, supporting more than 40 people a year to improve their confidence and employment prospects.
One disabled person who completed the course said it had been an “eye-opener” on disability issues and the importance of the social model of disability.
He said: “I can’t believe CHOICE has been going for 30 years. It’s incredible to think of all those people they’ve helped. I hope they last another 30.”
*Deaf and disabled people’s organisations
This news story is part of an ongoing Disability News Service series that highlights the vital work of the UK’s disabled people’s organisations
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