With a mission statement committed to “empowering young disabled people to campaign for rights and equality” there is no doubt that the Powerful Voices Network, based at Scope’s Beaumont College, is an ambitious project, writes David Ord.
Beaumont’s Lancaster campus caters for residential and day students aged from 18 to 25, with a broad range of physical and learning disabilities. Research at the college identified a need for a social networking and campaigning group which could bring young disabled people together. A successful bid to the National Lottery’s Young People’s Fund provided three years’ funding, and additional support has now been secured from the Rank Foundation.
As well as a contact database which will allow young people to network, the project will provide a stand alone website to allow information-sharing using a special chat room and message board. Network members will have a say in the design and content of promotional material, posters and an online newsletter.
In addition to the social side of the network, the aim of the project is to run events to train young people in campaigning techniques, IT skills and rights-based training. The project has been publicised by email, articles in the relevant newsletters and through special schools.
The website went live in early February with the newsletter launching a few weeks later. But this is just the start. The project team’s brief is to extend the network beyond the boundaries of Beaumont College to cover all of the North-West, and to expand its target audience to 13- to 25-year-olds, rather than just those of college age.
Last year the team appointed five young people to join the steering group. They are now in place, meeting once a month and making decisions. Of the five, only two are students at the college – the aim is that 12 Beaumont students and at least 10 other young disabled people will be represented on the group.
Those on board at present have a say in all aspects of the project, from working with the designer of the website to amending the wording of the mission statement.
Project coordinator Mandy McKnight stresses the need for constant support and encouragement. “It can be a very slow process because this group is not used to having a voice or to anybody listening,” she says. “They need to be given as much ownership as possible – if they don’t feel they own it, they’re not going to participate.”
Slow process or not, the young people in the steering group all cite improved confidence as a major benefit of involvement in the project, which is progress indeed, considering the first group meeting was only in October 2007.
According to McKnight, the next step is to convince those working with young disabled people to pass on information about the network so that they see it as relevant and want to get involved.
“We had a big piece in one of the local disability magazines recently – it goes to every family in Lancashire with a disabled child. We didn’t have one single person sign up. We need to either look at what we’re saying or find a more direct route.”
The project has a target of over 200 network members – at the moment there are 31 on board. With additional funding now in place to support another dedicated project worker, McKnight is planning to raise awareness through a campaign of visits to schools, colleges, youth groups, day centres and those at home.
There are also plans for a large mail shot which will give information about joining the network and ask for more volunteers for the steering group.
Ultimately, the aim of the project is to establish a presence in schools, colleges and universities, promoting equality and inclusion. To that end the network will engage with key local people, MPs, school heads, teachers and other professionals.
It is envisaged that local councillors, teaching staff and representatives of voluntary sector organisations will attend meetings and workshops, together with support workers and senior social workers.
McKnight says: “We’re trying to remove the barrier of support workers and parent carers and to encourage young people to speak up for themselves. We’ll be running rights-based workshops so that they can enter into a partnership with service providers and hopefully will be able to influence the services they receive. If they can’t work in partnership then at least they’ll be skilled up to know what their rights are.
“Mainstream disability groups don’t always take on board what young disabled people might need. They have to be encouraged to seek their views – after all, they’re the activists of the future.”
The young people in the steering group, with their new-found confidence, are keen to make a difference. “We want to challenge peoples’ prejudices, to change how they talk to you,” says Emma Smith, who, at 16, is the youngest member of the group.
Beaumont’s activists of the future are ambitious, too. “We want more members, and to do more in schools and colleges,” says Jayne O’Neill, a residential student at Beaumont, and a group member since October. “We would like it to be national.”
For more information call 01524 541400.