Buddy, spare me the time

“To be honest, I’m still a bit stunned!” says project manager
Shirley Wilson, about the Buddy Mentor Scheme winning the
disability category at the Community Care awards in

The scheme, which is run by Hertfordshire Council, was set up as a
pilot in September 2002 and aims to help disabled people with a
range of employment issues ranging from helping people to make the
first move into training to helping people in employment deal with
problems they (or their employer) are having.

The small team is run by Giselle Ruoss, Buddy Mentor Scheme
co-ordinator, managed by Wilson and supported by part-time
secretary Denise Crabb. The scheme was initially introduced to meet
the requirements of the Welfare to Work joint investment plan,
Wilson explains. “We were looking at how we could create something
a bit different, and knew that there wasn’t anything in
Hertfordshire or neighbouring local authorities that was helping
disabled people get into work,” she says.

Like a lot of the best ideas, the scheme is simple but very
effective. Mentors, who are all volunteers with an interest in
disability issues, are recruited, trained and supported so they, in
turn, can support disabled people. Mentors come from a variety of
backgrounds but, importantly, many are themselves disabled, which
gives them a valuable insight into the problems disabled people
experience. “Our service users have different employment status and
a mixture of disabilities ranging from physical, sensory
impairment, learning difficulties and mental health problems,”
Ruoss says.

The mentors are there for support, not to take over, and the scheme
is rooted in person-centred principles. “People don’t fit in boxes,
so we don’t try and put them in one. We are always trying to fit
the service around what they need,” Ruoss says. Buddy mentors are
trained to work with people on the basis that they are in control
of their own lives – the mentor is there to listen and support and
by talking things through with their mentor disabled people are
able to find their own solutions and build their sense of

The project is currently working with nine mentors and 12 mentees
who are supported in a number of different ways. “The aim is to
make contact as easy as possible. In addition to face-to-face work
the project uses mentoring via e-mail, and some mentors use text
messaging via their mobile phones to support their mentee. We will
use any way of communication that works,” Ruoss says.

Working with employers to break down the barriers to disabled
people getting jobs is also a big part of what they do. “We do a
lot of work on getting managers to understand disabled people’s
issues,” Wilson says. “Some of it is about sitting down with a
manager and talking to them about making a few adjustments.” Ruoss
adds: “These can be physical adjustments or an adjustment to how
language is being used.”

Ruoss was thrilled to win and sees it as a welcome recognition that
the issue of disabled people in the workplace is here to stay.
“People don’t put disability and employment together and they
should,” she says.

Wilson adds: “Obviously, we don’t do this work to get an award, but
we are very pleased because it’s a recognition of our work – there
are only three of us, we don’t have a team of 40.”

They plan to use the prize money to promote the scheme to a wider
audience. “We are planning to produce a second video specifically
for employers looking at how the Buddy Mentor Scheme can help them
not to be scared of employing disabled people,” Wilson explains.
“Disability sometimes scares people, especially in terms of
employment. The video will show employers what support is out there
and help them see disabled people as an asset.

“They are an extremely valuable commodity,” she says.

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