Beyond Empower: supporting healthy, active lives for disabled people by transforming mainstream spaces and services

| Ben Andrews

Ben Andrews is on a mission to make communities and leisure services accessible and inclusive. He wants to enable everyone to have the opportunity to live an active and involved lifestyle, following their own interests and pursuits to support physical and mental health. Living with a degenerative visual impairment since birth, Ben frequently encountered the inaccessibility of many mainstream spaces. He has used this experience and his expertise in exercise and health sciences to create Beyond Empower – a Community Interest Company that supports disabled people to do the things they want to do by transforming community services and mainstream leisure provision. What we particularly like about Beyond Empower is the way that their services start off with a person-centred focus, but the adaptations and accessibility adjustments made to mainstream services have a longer-lasting and wider-reaching community benefit. We hand over to Ben to tell us more…

Beyond Empower is a fairly new company, but I’ve been involved in the work Beyond Empower is now associated with and delivers for the last 12 years. My involvement and development of this work has been driven by my own personal experience and that of family members of having a blinding visual impairment, Retinitis Pigmentosa. I’ve experienced first-hand the barriers society creates and how difficult this can make achieving good health and wellbeing for disabled people. I wanted to do something about that.

It’s been quite a journey to here: from volunteering at age 17, identifying a lack of accessible, inclusive provision for disabled people to access, going on to University and building a case as to the importance of this, piloting projects with the NHS, local authorities, and housing, I’m now founder and managing director of Beyond Empower, spreading the message of inclusivity and working to tackle the barriers disabled people face to health and wellbeing.

Disabled people face vast health inequalities. They are more likely to develop long-term conditions and die prematurely. This is largely to do with a lack of access to opportunities to support good health and wellbeing. There’s no reason physiologically that a blind person should be more likely to be overweight, a d/Deaf person more likely to be depressed or the majority of wheelchair users at increased risk of diabetes, but it’s often accepted that these things are just “how they are”.

In fact, these inequalities are often caused by external issues, like poor street and transport access limiting people’s ability to get around easily; a lack of inclusive communication formats; and inaccessible venues and services generally. There are also massive cultural issues when it comes to expectations and perceptions about disabled people. It is these assumptions that are the underlying issue behind a lot of the more visible barriers we see.

These are the things Beyond Empower want to change. We want to help society #DoItDifferently to enable healthy, active lives by disabled people. The majority of our work involves supporting disabled people to access mainstream places and supporting mainstream places to better support disabled people.

Beyond Empower do this in a variety of different ways:

  • Empower You works with communities to support disabled people to lead active lifestyles. We help disabled people to identify what they want to do – from swimming to gardening, dog walking to photography – find this locally and make the necessary adjustments to enable disabled people and those around them to attend independently. Empower You does this in a community until it’s increased community capacity to the point where specialist support is no longer needed. This enables disabled people to access greater opportunities local to them to better manage health and wellbeing.
  • Workshops and training: we work with individuals, teams and organisations to design and deliver a more inclusive offer for disabled people. For example, we’ve supported infrastructure teams with accessible street design. We’ve worked with parks and green spaces teams, getting disabled children to advise on how these spaces can be made more inclusive. We’ve helped health and activity teams to better engage and support disabled people through their marketing and communications.
  • Consultancy: we also have a consultancy arm which allows us to get involved in all sorts of innovative and creative things. We’re currently working on:
    • A project to get disabled children accessing mainstream activity clubs in their area.
    • Partnering with Sport England to explore what an accessible digital offer for the leisure sector might look like.
    • Bringing together disabled people’s organisations in Salford to support their capacity and enable greater representation.

Anything to do with enabling disabled people to access more of what they want in an inclusive way is what we specialise in.

I think the best thing we do is enable disabled people to get on without us, as independently as possible. There’s no better feeling than seeing someone go from doing nothing with their day, in poor health both physically and mentally, to doing more of what they want to do and being in a much better place for it. We’ve seen this with loads of people we’ve worked with along the way.

It’s also good to be seeing more organisations transform and prioritise disabled people as part of their own mainstream agendas. I came across this much less frequently when I started this work, so it’s good to see it on the up and I’d like to think we’re playing a part in supporting and enabling that to happen.

I get a lot of inspiration from meeting the people we work with and to see the benefit they are having from working with us. That’s what keeps me going when things get difficult and is something I try to reflect on and be around as much as I can.

As Beyond Empower is a fairly new company, our focus in the next year or so is developing it into a sustainable business to enable it to continue its work and impact. We also want to spread our approach beyond where we currently deliver. We have models and approaches that can now be very easily dragged and dropped wherever they are needed with proven pilots and robust business cases to support this. This is now being acknowledged and we’re getting a good amount of interest in our work which is where we want to be. Our official launch will be later in the year and we have loads lined up for that which is exciting and I’m looking forward to it.

We’re really excited for the Beyond Empower launch and to see what Ben and the team get up to next. Their website is currently being worked on and will be launched in the New Year. For now, you can find them on Twitter at @BeyondEmpowerUK, visit their Facebook page or contact Ben via email on ben.andrews@beyondempower.co.uk.

Photo: supplied by Beyond Empower

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