Preston's Disability Equality North West: 'Morally, we had to step up during the pandemic because tough times don't last, tough people do'
With a staff, team of volunteers, board of trustees, and - crucially - a base of service-users all composed of disabled people, Disability Equality North West was placed in a tough position when the pandemic hit. But, according to their CEO Mel Close, continuing to offer support was their moral duty.
"Everything was very chaotic because everyone was in that vulnerable bracket, so we could've just shut and told people to shield," explains Mel, 56, from Preston. "But I knew we still had a job to do and that people still needed us. We knew how difficult things were for people, so we understood that - morally - we had to step up."
A charity which supports disabled people across the North West, Disability Equality North West (DENW) was founded in 1996 and, to this day, is run and controlled by disabled people, for disabled people. And their mission is to further the rights of disabled people across the region by providing a range of user-led services to support disabled people and achieve this goal.
Working with around 4,000 people in the region, the charity's slate of services has arisen out of local community need and includes things such as a hate crime reporting and support project, an independent living service, supported banking, information and advice with things such as benefits, policy and campaign work, training, and group activities.
"Crucially, we're a disabled people's organisation which will always have a majority of disabled people on our board," says Mel. "One hundred percent of our trustees, 100% of our volunteers, and 80% of our staff are disabled people with lived experience, so we're a professional community group of disabled people, which gives the people we help confidence in us.
"We know what it's like to be disabled and so we can offer that crucial peer support which is at the heart of what we do," she adds. "Thinking about things like accessibility isn't part of other people's work, but it is part of our world. If we didn't say 'that's not right', we wouldn't be able to sleep at night, which I think gives us real validity as a disability equality organisation."
During Covid, the charity was - like many others - forced to pivot in order to continue to provide support amidst ever-changing lockdown restrictions.
"There was a real fear amongst the disabled community during Covid, so we stuck with all our services, just remotely," explains Mel, who was named a Preston Guild Honorary Burgess in 2012. "Lancashire County Council, Preston City Council, and the Lottery were brilliant in giving us some extra money so we could do things like delivering PPE and carrying out 33,000 phone calls.
"Those kinds of things just made sure people had the care and support they needed at a tough time," Mel continues, with the charity having won numerous awards for their amazing work over the past 18 months or so. "That was a real lifeline for people and, looking back, we knew we had to be part of the solution from the start, which makes me very proud.
"I kept saying 'tough times don't last, tough people do' but, even then, never in my 24 years here have I had to keep a whole team of staff alive. But, when the proverbial hits the fan, you've got to step up."
Having recently also released a report looking at the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people in Lancashire which found that 61% of respondents said the pandemic had affected their support and 95% said it had changed going out and about for them, DENW are still acutely aware of the ongoing challenges faced by disabled people in modern society.
But their will to do something about it remains undimmed.
"I've got my own impairments, so I have an understanding of discrimination and of people saying 'you can't do that'," says Mel. "The question I've always asked in response is 'but why not?'"