British Red Cross project helps disabled young people achieve independence

The step into adulthood is a step towards independence, but for those with a physical disability, it can be a hard one to take, says Rowenna Davis. Since its establishment in Ayrshire, Scotland, the Options for Independence Youth Service has used a refreshingly different approach to help over 50 physically disabled young people aged 16-26.

The service, born out of a six-year pilot called the Gateway project, is run by the British Red Cross which wants to expand it so councils across Scotland can use the model.

Project manager Roni Hovey says: “The fundamental difference between us and other services is that we’re completely designed by young people.”

Not only are the users heavily involved in creating a personalised set of targets with their care workers – which range from anything from making a cup of tea to taking up higher education – they also play a role in designing and implementing the group and community programmes offered by the service.

For example, after suggesting that the group should go to the Edinburgh Festival, Danielle Farrel, a 22-year-old Gateway member with cerebral palsy, was asked to take responsibility for organising the trip. “I had to decide what we were going to see, book tickets and arrange ramps for the train,” says Farrel. “The support workers were in the background having a cup of tea while we ran the show!”

Building self-belief

Such an approach helps build the self-belief young people need to progress to adulthood. “As a disabled person you’re often told that things are going to be difficult or impossible, so when you do manage to do things it really builds your confidence,” says Farrel. “Walking around Edinburgh was proof that [if you’re disabled] you can still make things happen.”

Hovey thinks that getting young people to run their own programmes helps challenge the “disabled mindset” that is often perpetuated by services that are handed down on a plate.

“Disabled people are often selfish – not because they are inherently so but because they have been brought up having everything done for them,” she explains. “But here we focus on balance; we talk about responsibilities as well as rights – on giving as well as getting.”

The service also encourages members to volunteer in the community. Although Hovey admits it can be challenging to find and sustain these placements, she believes the results are worth the effort.

“At its heart, this is about letting people be all they can be. It doesn’t matter how small the achievements are.”

Talking about taboos

Because the service focuses specifically on the transition to adulthood, it provides a unique space to discuss issues that other service providers dismiss as too taboo or difficult to deal with. One workshop, “Knowing You, Being Me”, addresses the specific problems posed by disabilities in relationships.

Web only Ayrshire“We’d talk about appropriate behaviour and share different experiences – the discussions themselves would build relationships,” says Farrel, who attended the sessions. “There are lots of things that able-bodied people take for granted; even things like being able to budget your money for dates, using public transport or getting around the cinema and the pub – they can be major obstacles for people with a disability.”

By providing a space to discuss the difficult situations and emotions thrown up by adolescence, Hovey believes that users are helped to achieve a more natural transition to adulthood. “They come to know who they are. We help users to establish their personal identity, to understand emotions and to form relationships with people other than care workers.”

Financial pressure

But no matter how good the service is, like so many others, it is facing financial pressure. For the last six years, the service has been funded by GlaxoSmithKline, but now funding has now ended and the organisation is searching for alternatives. Members aren’t despondent; in fact they are taking a pro-active approach to the problem that makes the most of their clients’ abilities.

“We’re developing marketing materials with our young service users,” says Hovey. “Our big challenge is to get them marketing the service.”

If the service’s record on young people is anything to go by, this shouldn’t be too difficult – indeed, it may even be an opportunity.

For more information contact Roni Hovey at or call 01294 313008.



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