The Power of Human Connections – George Fielding’s Story
We are very excited to be kickstarting 2023 with a flurry of new projects supporting new clients and partners with co-production projects, creating shared visions, frameworks and developing action based design challenges. But one of our own projects for the year is developing a group of critical friends for the Ideas Alliance CIC in order to keep challenging us and bringing new voices, viewpoints and ideas to the table.
One of our new critical friends is disability campaigner, George Fielding BEM who spoke to us about his compelling motivations for community work and life in general. George has raised more than £15 million for charities since becoming an advocate for young wheelchair users at age 12. He was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) at age 19 for services to young people with disabilities and their families. And he continues to inspire others in his work as a social care entrepreneur, strategist and relationships manager. George has been an incredible source of support offering insight, encouragement and advice to our small team.
This is George’s story:
“I’m a 27-year-old wheelchair user with cerebral palsy but I didn’t meet another wheelchair user until I was 12 years old as I always went to a mainstream school. To be honest, that was a hard moment for me because I was used to being the only one and I managed to fit in wherever I was. But it was also the moment that sparked my motivation for the work I do and the life I live now.
I knew I was part of their community and I wanted to be part of the collective. I decided then that I would be a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities. This meant that I aimed to have as many conversations with people with disabilities and the organisations representing them as I could to try and understand the different perspectives, because at that time, I didn’t understand where I fitted in. I needed to become comfortable with identifying myself as a disabled person.
The idea that you adapt society for people with disabilities rather than expect people with disabilities to adapt themselves to their environment was a lesson that took me a long time to learn. I was used to doing everything that my friends did and I was included, but I don’t think I recognised the effort or skill that it took. And I didn’t know how to explain how I carried out the tasks of day-to-day living because it was my reality.
In the process of supporting other wheelchair users, which is what I did as the Chair of the children’s board at Whizz-Kidz, I began to understand and articulate the support that not only I, but many other wheelchair users, needed. This work informed my overriding and driving purpose in life, which is to communicate and create the solutions to the problems that people with disabilities face in Britain today.
Through Whizz-Kidz, I turned what other wheelchair users told me into campaigns. So as a teenager, I helped design and launch parliamentary campaigns on accessible transport, as well as the legacy to the Paralympic Games and many more things besides. I was turning their voices into practical action and campaigning was something I was very lucky and proud to be able to do. It became my education. The other kids and wheelchair users became my education. They had more to teach me than schools or other institutions, where I realised I didn’t fit and had never fitted.
There was one problem I could never solve for anybody that I spoke to, which was the quality of their care package and the fact that there weren’t enough accessible homes. A lot of teenagers were becoming more independent and saying to me, I don’t want to live with my parents forever. But they were only actually comfortable with their parents helping with personal care. I saw that as a systemic problem across the community.
Putting words into action
When I left university, I set up a care provider service called. It was one of the first care providers to be fully backed by property developers and property investors so every person that we supported had their home adapted to meet their needs and it had a simple message that I carried with me: You could have the best care in the world but if you can’t get out of your front door, because your house is inaccessible, it’s pointless. Good support opens up your community. It opens up your surroundings, your space and your agency. Social care is a human principle. As far as I’m concerned, we all have a duty to look after each other.
More recently, I have become the policy and public affairs lead for Volunteering Matters, an organisation working in 50 communities to support institutions to harness the power of volunteers to increase their capacity. But not only that, to ensure that the people in those communities are able to shape what their space looks like. It’s about harnessing and giving voice to those communities at a grassroots, local level.
Personally, I always say – the wheels are in motion. I put a lot of emphasis on being visible. As a co-production movement, and a set of professionals within that movement, we have to tell stories and we cannot be scared of delivering those that are hard hitting. This is the only way things will change. But more than that, there has to be implementation with the representation. I realised I could have gone round speaking at events but I had to also do something to back up my words, stories and research listening to so many young wheelchair users.
My advice for others who want to create social change is to do things at your own pace and never be scared to change course. I plan and think about outcomes less now than I used to. When you’re working with people, thinking or designing, then if it feels right and the motivation is right to begin with, then just do it!”
To read more about George’s thoughts about social care and the changes that need to be planned for the future, follow him on Twitter.