In the dark days of 2016, when Disability Shetland was almost broke and facing possible closure, we had stark choices. Advice from several quarters was the typical business approach - “cut your service and make your clients pay more".
I’m glad to say that we did the opposite. Listening to people with disabilities and additional support needs - and those who care for them - we continued to run our existing activities, and opened up new ones. This wasn’t reckless stupidity: it was a calculation that, if we put our clients first and showed that our service was vital to them, we would get support.
That support came from the people of Shetland. Responding to our fund-raising projects, they dug deep and gave us the cash that carried us through until we got grants from funders outside Shetland. As well as allowing our clubs, activities and personal support plans to function, this public generosity lifted our spirits and reassured us that the job we were doing was important.
Did we deserve that support? Do we still deserve that support? It's easy to answer that by saying "of course we do, we help disabled people". But I don't think that's good enough. Just because a charity sounds good doesn't mean it's doing good.
Bearing that in mind, we responded to the financial crisis by taking a hard look at our organisation and our priorities. We carried out a pretty ruthless scrutiny of all aspects of our work - and we made changes. The result is the Disability Shetland which now operates.
This is the staffing structure:-
- Team Leader. Responsible for everything that we do, she is our only salaried staff member. Her remit is huge, complex and challenging but the evidence is that she not only copes with managing the wide range of activities, but is constantly seeking to initiate projects in response to the needs of new clients.
- Leaders and workers. This is the operational force which runs our clubs and activities and is mostly made up of staff with experience in the care and education sectors. They are paid by the hour for the face-to-face work they do with groups and individuals.
- Admin assistant. When needed for specific administrative tasks, we bring in an hourly-paid worker to assist the Team Leader.
- Volunteers. Essential to the running of all our group activities, the team of trained volunteers works under the guidance of club leaders, attending to the complex and varied needs of the children and adults who attend.
These are the activities we run:-
- 8 clubs for children and young people. Meeting weekly or fortnightly in Unst, Yell, Mossbank, North Roe, Urafirth, Lerwick (Sandveien and Islesburgh). Over 80 members.
- Holiday Club for young people. For 6 weeks a year during school holidays. Over 30 members.
- 4 clubs for adults. Monday Sports Club in Clickimin Leisure Centre: Wednesday Club in Islesburgh Community Centre: monthly Arts and Crafts Club: weekly Yoga Club. Over 100 members
- Individual Support programmes. Workers provide intensive one-to-one support to children and young adults who have conditions such as autism.
- Wootton Lass. Disability Shetland owns a motor boat, based in the Lerwick marina, which takes clients, carers and friends on sight-seeing and fishing trips. A hoist has just been installed, which will give access to the boat for people in wheelchairs or with restricted mobility.
New projects in preparation and development :-
- Under 5s. Started recently, this project brings together pre-school children, their parents and carers to support each other, share experiences and explore strategies.
- North Mainland Adult Club. This club will be based in Brae, will start in November and will be open to adults who feel socially isolated or have physical or mental conditions which restrict their participation in community activities.
- Forward Directions Evening Drop-in Group. For this project Disability Shetland is working in co-operation with the Eric Gray Centre.
- Inter-agency Co-operation. The Team Leader ensures Disability Shetland's participation and influence in groups, projects and systems which affect all aspects of the lives of our clients.
- Case reviews - children and adults
- Sport for All
- Carers Group
- Child Protection
- Access Group
- Inspiring Scotland (Scottish Government)
- Paths for All (NHS)
- All-terrain Wheelchair. This wheelchair has been bought to ensure that clients can have access to beaches, paths and rural locations. It will also be available for use by visitors and members of the public.
- Disability Awareness Training. This training will be given, not only to our own staff and volunteers, but also to local employers and organisations. It will be delivered by the Team Leader and one of our club leaders who works for Train Shetland.
Is Disability Shetland now fit for its purpose?
To tackle that broad question we have to answer some more detailed ones:-
- Do we make effective use of the money given to us by local people and funding organisations?
Charities rightly come under scrutiny for the amount they spend on wages compared to what they spend on clients. Our recent review tackled that issue, analysing the imbalance of past structures and producing the system described above. Having only one salaried employee puts a huge workload on our Team Leader and will need to be kept under review. Our biggest wage-bill is the payment of self-employed, part-time staff. We believe in this system because every pound they earn is for face-to-face work with clients. Other expenses are on training, venue hire, equipment purchase and travel expenses.
Our accountants' report shows that we have cut costs, despite the big expansion of our services. However, given our recent experience, we are by no means complacent about our financial future and know that the simultaneous battles to develop our service, raise funds and cut costs must continue unabated.
- Do we deliver a good service to our clients?
It's easy for charities to avoid that question by allowing people to assume that because they have a good cause, they must be doing a good job. The criterion for effectiveness has to be tougher than that, with the devil in the details of what is actually delivered. For example, how many clients are actually worked with - and how many hours per week are spent working face-to-face with them. In the past, Disability Shetland ran a small number of clubs, mainly in Lerwick. Some of these were, and still are, excellent, providing opportunities for clients of all ages to meet people, learn skills and develop relationships. This group-work model remains at the heart of our operation, but has now expanded into island and rural areas, where we run clubs which suit community needs and integrate our clients with their peers. We have also greatly increased our attention to the needs of individual clients, creating personal programmes and linking with other agencies to play an important part in care plans. This combination of group activities and individual programmes means that we work with clients every day of the week.
- Is Disability Shetland necessary?
Like all charities, we should be judged by the quantity and quality of the work we actually do, not by noble ideas or pretty words. People who give us money should be checking that it is being well spent. Checking that our activities make a measurable improvement in the lives of children and adults who otherwise suffer deprivation, isolation and inequality. We believe that such scrutiny would find hard evidence that the service we provide is not an option - but is an absolute necessity.