Speak for yourself

At a conference last year on improving the lives of people with learning difficulties several noteworthy speakers took the podium to set contexts, address issues and pontificate about what should happen next. All good stuff, no doubt. However, one presentation blew everyone away. And it was the only one presented by a person with a learning difficulty.

It seems, and not before time, that someone has spotted a gap in the market. The charity Tact was formed in 1991 to facilitate the closure of two long-stay hospitals in Oxfordshire and transfer 400 people into community services. As agencies proved unable or unwilling to support some people with extremely challenging reputations, Tact took on that role itself – and now supports more than 200 people.

One client is Ray Cox, an older man with mental health needs and learning difficulties. In a DVD – Living on My Own – Cox tells his astonishing and moving story, of how he was “put away” during the second world war and kept in secure units by a system that just saw a difficult-to-manage man. Tact, however, just saw the man and has since supported him to live alone: which is all he has ever wanted. Tact, says Cox, “helped me get outside”.

Should he ever speak at a conference, Ray Cox would be the star turn. And so Tact is now working with businessman Iain Speed, who himself has cerebral palsy, in setting up a consultancy service – All Inclusive – to be owned and managed by people with disabilities to provide keynote speakers for conferences, disability awareness training and access audits.

“All Inclusive is about seeing the whole political picture. To have equality in the future we must work with everyone,” says Speed, who is the project development manager. “I have observed that keynote speakers at conferences on disability issues are usually made up of experts, none of whom seem to have a disability; which means they can’t give the spirit of disability. If there is a conference on schizophrenia it is simply more powerful to have a keynote speaker with schizophrenia.”

Speed aims to train a group of disabled people as keynote speakers drawn initially from those supported by Tact in southern England. He thinks it is important to build credibility and a reputation first. “There’s nothing worse than giving people an opportunity, having them ready and then not having anything to go to,” he says.

All of Speed’s work is part of the wider goal of raising awareness. “People always make assumptions,” he says. “They make assumptions about me before they even talk to me. They think I must be drunk because I have a wobbly walk; and when they do talk to me they think I must have learning difficulties because of my speech.”

He recounts a story about arriving at a day centre as a consultant. “The staff thought I was part of the new intake. If our own industry can’t get it right what chance has anybody else? We’re never going to have Utopia but we should at least have the chance to have ordinary lives. At the moment we don’t. I wasn’t allowed into a theatre because I was considered a fire risk.”

Another aspect of his work is the East Hampshire Access Awards, run in partnership with East Hampshire District Council. Speed says: “As the architect of this project, my ambition is to make this an annual top-quality business event where organisations celebrate their continuing improvements towards the disabled population. It’s becoming clear that legislation may not be enough. We need to become creative and steer organisations to become more disabled-aware. These awards are one way to achieve this.”

No doubt Speed will book the awards evening keynote speakers to be those who really know what access means. “If you’re passionate about what you do, it will come across,” he says “And you can’t be more passionate about a disability than to wear it and live with it each day.”

  • For a free copy of Ray Cox – Living on My Own telephone Sarah Everitt on 0491 652303 or e-mail saraheveritt@tactltd.org
    All Inclusive e-mail: iain.speed@tactsouth.org

    Lessons learned

  • To begin with, it is important to keep the scheme local. As it becomes more established, the net can be cast wider.
  • Awareness of the benefits trap is crucial: if you work you lose benefits and so are rarely better off. “The government wants disabled people to work but doesn’t provide the impetus,” says Speed, who has cerebral palsy.
  • All strands of work must aim to convey the message that physical equality is important. All Inclusive’s strapline is “Living the life not the label”. For Speed the need is to be creative. “The access awards will help put physical access high on the agenda locally and promote organisations that provide services which disabled people can access,” he says.

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