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Friday, 25 April 2014

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‘It’s not just about disabled people getting a job, it’s about independence’

We live in an age of equality, in a society where disabled people should have the same rights as everyone else – and the same opportunities.

Kevin Pardell photo
Kevin Pardell

But even with the best intentions, there remain many barriers.

A Cumbrian disabled centre is working to tackle this. A recent project – which is now being used as a national example – aimed to open up new learning opportunities for its members, and help them play a much bigger role in their local communities.

A partnership between COSC (Copeland Occupational and Social Centre), which runs day centres in Cleator Moor and Maryport, and the WEA (Worker’s Educational Association), they secured £10,000 of funding to help make a difference.

Many months of work culminated yesterday when the organisations hosted a Disability Awareness Conference at Hundith Hill in Cockermouth.

It saw disabled people who have been at the heart of the project get together to celebrate their achievements – and begin to spread the word across Cumbria.

The whole ethos of the project, dubbed COSC Aid, is about learning. But as Julie Ballantyne from the WEA explains, it was not just about gaining qualifications.

“It’s not just about getting a job, it’s about people’s independence. As we all know, funding is getting tighter and tighter. There is not a lot of money around. But we got an opportunity to apply for funding to promote learning for fun. That’s very rare. It’s usually about getting people jobs but this was more about informal learning,” she says.

“It was about increasing the voice of people with disabilities and making people more aware of the learning opportunities that are out there. We could then identify what support is needed to help them overcome some of the barriers that might stop them accessing these opportunities.

“It was also about being able to take part in things that a lot of us take for granted – getting involved in the community and gaining more independence, realising their potential.”

She adds that the project was not one way – it was also about encouraging disabled people to take their newfound knowledge out into the community and educate others. This can take on many forms, including campaigning about important disability issues.

The project was made possible thanks to £10,000 of funding from NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education). The organisation has now chosen it to use as a national example in a report that will go to Government and councils across England.

There were many different strands to the initiative, all drawn up by disabled members. Part of it was to help them develop their own skills – getting involved in the development of a new COSC website and online newsletter, starting individual online blogs and learning to take digital photographs then displaying them in a exhibition.

Many of the members also trained to become Community Learning Champions, meaning they have committed to share the work of COSC with the local community.

Liz Johnston, of the Johnston Partnership, then worked with these learning champions to help them discover how they can further their own education via the internet, drawing up an online resource with links to free training aids and useful websites.

There is also a campaigning element, with members working alongside DaCE (Disability Association Carlisle and Eden) to contribute to vital local consultations that affect them – for example changes to welfare payments and adult day services.

Cathy Stubbs, from DaCE, explains: “A lot of people wanted to get involved in the community and be involved in decision making, but there are barriers.

“They may not know where to start or may want to go to public meetings, but transport is often an issue. People forget that it’s not as easy for disabled people to get to a venue as it is for everyone else. In the future we hope to build on this and set up expert panels, but funding is an issue. We want to help people become part of their community.”

As part of the project, disabled members have also worked with Cumbria County Council to draw up new information leaflets for care providers, from a disabled perspective.

Meanwhile a Blue Badge campaign they are about to launch through the WEA – which could go on to become a national resource – aims to raise awareness of parking issues faced by disabled drivers and stop able-bodied people using reserved bays.

Two COSC members, Kevin Pardell and Pauline Grears, have gone one step further than learning champions, training to become Community Learning Advocates. They are now set to attend a regional conference to exchange ideas.

Kevin, of Maryport, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. As a result he faced many challenges growing up and was bullied at school because he was different.

He recently launched a DVD, called Joseph’s Story, which aims to share some of his experiences and challenge attitudes to disability. He is gradually developing it into a training aid for workplaces – an example of him sharing his knowledge with the wider community.

“I’m in the process of, as an extension to the DVD, putting training packs together and I’m hoping that being a Community Learning Advocate will help me spread the word and give it more cuedos. It’s all from a disabled person’s point of view,” he says.

Pauline, of Wath Brow, also relies on a wheelchair after being paralysed in one leg by polio as a child. She says she has learnt many new skills since starting at COSC and now wants to use them to help others. “There are quite a few new people coming to the centre who need help with literacy and numeracy. We have now set out a programme for the summer months when I will be able to sit and work with them. We are also doing a lot about disability awareness.

“This project has been absolutely brilliant. It’s given us the confidence to do these things for ourselves.

“Not so long ago we wouldn’t have had the confidence to speak out.”

Alan Hunter, manager of COSC, stresses that their whole ethos is to ensure everyone is achieving their full potential, whatever it may be.

“There are two things that mean COSC to me – inspiration and success. Everyone who meets people from COSC are inspired by them. You see the barriers that are in front of them but they can break them down with support and determination.

“Sometimes success can be measured and sometimes it can’t, it doesn’t matter, as long as they are succeeding in their own way,” he explains.

Alan adds that among those invited to yesterday’s conference were some key local decision makers, such as councillors and the mayors of Allerdale and Copeland. He hopes that by learning more about their members and their goals, these organisations will be more informed when planning future policies and help break down the barriers they face.

Allerdale council leader Alan Smith supports this aim. “Our council philosophy is to reduce poverty and as part of that we are looking at different ways we can support charities. We have been talking to quite a lot of them and they all have different needs. It is about building links and seeing how we can support each one,” he said. “In COSC’s case it plays a really vital role. These people have a lot to give, but if they weren’t at COSC they would just be sitting at home vegetating.”

To find out more about COSC visit www.cosc-cumbria.org.uk.

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