There was laughter and tears as local charity Disability First celebrated 25 years of helping disabled people across Blackpool and the Fylde.
Lauding staff and volunteers for their sterling work, CEO Alan Reid nevertheless warned welfare reforms will drive more off benefits and into food banks, with the charity experiencing soaring demand for advice, benefit appeals, and specialist industrial disease support and allied legal services.
A reminder of all that had been achieved since the charity fought off the threat of closure 25 years ago, the event also saw DF celebrate the Access Fylde Coast partnership securing almost £1m from the Government’s Coastal Communities Fund for a project which will offer disability awareness courses and aim to attract more disabled people to various events and activities.
“I like to look at the positives to continue to drive for change,” said keynote speaker, Kamran Mallick, chief exec of Disability Rights UK. “We have come a long way and, yes, there is a long way to go. Together we will get there.”
As well as inspirational addresses from retired Disability First Trustee John Nutting and Charlie Hart, aka Big Charlie Poet, who read a poem called Disability First based on his experiences, attendees also heard moving accounts from DF client Teresa Gresswell and trustee Brian Carney.
Teresa - who had been in despair, in poor health, and near-destitute - said she was “shaking” when she met her “hero” Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, at the event with the MP having supported her claim for Personal Independent Payments having previously turned to a doctor for help and been told: “What do you expect me to do about it? I’m not the DWP.”
“I smile now when I see the charity when I’m on the bus," Teresa said. “[Disability First] were the first to see me as me. They didn’t look down or away, they made eye contact.”
DF trustee Brian, who suffers from MS, also thanked Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, after the MP helped him secure crucial enhanced rate mobility benefits, saying: “I was so frustrated I cried when I finally got the charity.
“I was no longer eligible for mobility, so my car went back immediately," Brian explained. "You can’t keep it pending appeal. It’s like a presumption of guilt until proven innocent. My MS is here to stay. I’m not going to get better but I’ll get by as best as I can for as long as I can - with support.
"I can’t walk far; I get fatigued," he added. "I use a wheelchair, yet they decided I could walk 20m. I’ve experienced the system from the other side now – and that helps me know how others feel too.”
A quarter of a century into the amazing work the charity is doing, Disability First's CEO Alan Reid concludes that their work is needed more than ever, saying: “It’s going to get a lot worse. Look at what’s happening with Universal Credit - it’s unfit for purpose.
“We’re not here to dupe the system but help people badly failed," he added.