The idea of becoming independent is something we encounter early as children. We’re taught that we’re meant to go to school, get a job and then move out to start our own lives. Gaining independence can seem difficult if you’re disabled. However, whilst there may be some extra factors to consider, independence should never be out of the question for those of us with disabilities.
Active8 is a Cornish based charity that Liz Olive founded in 1990, to bring like-minded disabled young people together so they could bond and share experiences while completing residential weekends. In its 30-year history, the charity has grown into a hub that helps foster autonomy and independence in all disabled young people they encounter.
I took the time to sit down with one of the charities youth workers, Lindsey Cooper, to ask her some questions about her job and Active8 as a whole.
Lauren: Lindsay, thank you for coming to talk to me today about independence and autonomy for disabled people. I appreciate it. We’re here to talk about Active8, a charity that we’re both affiliated with. You’re a youth worker, and I’m a trustee. So I thought, let’s start with something easy, who are Active8? What do they do? What’s their mission?
Lindsey: So, Active8 is a Cornwall-based charity for people with physical disabilities. They champion independence, autonomy and give experiences to young people aged 13 to 30 with physical disabilities. My job as a youth worker and project coordinator is to find activities for people to do, particularly activities that they thought they couldn’t participate in because of their disability. Or perhaps at some point in their life, they’ve been told they can’t do. Our job as a charity is to find ways to make those things accessible. So, we will always tell people that there isn’t anything they can’t do; they just may have to do things slightly differently to achieve that.
What’s it like working with disabled young people?
For me personally, it is like working with any youth group. When [young people] come on Active8 weekends, they are a typical group of 13 to 18-year-olds. Quite often they tell me that they couldn’t possibly because of their disability do the dishes [for example], and I am more than happy to find ways to make that accessible for them. So, for me, it is just like working with any other youth group.
On the whole, what do you think the charity offers most for young people?
Active8 gives young people the opportunity to challenge themselves, try new things, and gain life experience to help them live a more independent life. We believe at the charity that it is up to the individual how they would like to live independently. Interestingly, independence is being self-governed and making your own decisions.
We give people the opportunity to start doing that through their Active8 life, starting from little things like choosing where they would like to go on trips, choosing what they would like to have for dinner, choosing what they would like to cook, [and choosing] what skills they would like to develop.
We work with each individual throughout the project to set their own goals and targets because we know as a charity, independence will look completely different from person to person. Independence itself is about self-governed. It’s about being free from external control.
You can live at home with your parents and be completely independent if that is your choice. Likewise, you can live on your own and have support from carers and still be independent. As long as you are involved in the decisions around your housing, your care, and what you do as a career or as an education.
Okay, so if Active8 is the overall charity, what are the independent projects you run within that?
Active8 has two main projects. We have our Acceler8 group for young people aged 13 to 18. We see them once a month for a residential, and we run that over two years with the same group. So that’s ten young people coming together every month. Over that time, they really get to know each other as a group, and they get to take part in a huge variety of different activities together.
It’s really nice to see the transformation of people from the beginning of the project right through, building their confidence, their independence and challenging what they think they are able to do for themselves. Seeing the people that you get at the end of that project is hugely rewarding.
We also have our Illumin8 project that runs for people aged 18 to 30. We accept referrals up to age 25 for that one. As the Acceler8 group graduate, they automatically join the older group, which is more about friendship, about independence, and trying to give people the skills, knowledge, and experience to live as independently as they would like to.
As part of Illumin8, we are currently in the process of developing a peer mentoring project. [This] involves training up some of our Illumin8 members to buddy with someone in the younger group to share experiences, both good and bad and how they overcame challenges as part of having a disability.
What’s the most important impact you think Active8 has?
I think the biggest impact we have on people is giving them an opportunity to meet other people with disabilities. Cornwall, being a very rural place for some of our members, it’s the first time that they’ve ever met other people who may use a wheelchair the same as them. Or for people who don’t use a wheelchair, it may be a chance to meet other people with hidden disabilities.
Although they all have friends outside of Active8, I think what Active8 offers them is the chance to really relate to others. Everyone in the group will know what it’s like to take a few months out of school to do surgeries and trips to hospital. They’ll know what it’s like to have battles with PIP [Personal Independence Payment – UK government support for disabled people] and benefits. All of those challenges that people face as a disabled young person can really be shared experiences.
What’s some of the challenges that the charity faces?
Recently, the biggest challenge to the charity has to be the COVID pandemic. For most of our members, medical advice during that time was to shield at home and it’s caused a lot of isolation for our members. For some of them, it has really knocked their confidence back. The charity has been working with them more over the last few months since lockdown has started to lift about building their confidence and trying to get them out and about again, in a safe way.
The charity generally has many challenges, particularly when it comes to activities and events. I tend to find as a project coordinator that a lot of places are geared up for potentially one wheelchair user. But obviously, we have a group of ten young people that we work with every month. Of those, six regularly use a wheelchair. Not many places that we go tend to be geared up towards supporting six wheelchair users.[We] do have to do more research to make sure we are going places that are suitable for the group and to make sure we are meeting everybody’s needs. Whether that’s accommodation, travel arrangements, or the sort of activities that we take part in, we tend to try and do a site visit before every activity. Just so that we can double-check that everything is right for the group before we go.
Where are some of the Active8 alumni now?[As a charity Active8] will instil in you the ethos that you can do anything you would like to do, and our members do go on to do all sorts of different things. We’ve got some [members] that are currently at university, we’ve got some that have graduated, some that have gone on to college, to teacher training or training to become nursery school nurses. We’ve got some members who have gone into employment and some searching for employment. It really depends on the person. I think it’s important to say that everyone’s journey after Active8 is different. Everyone has different goals, different ambitions.
You said you’ve been with Active8 for about two years. What’s been your favourite memory?
That’s a really hard question because there are so many great moments. For me personally, it’s the little things that have been the best. The groups that we have generally have a wicked sense of humour. The best memory has to be with our last Acceler8 group when they were taking part in their Duke of Edinburgh [Award]. We set them off on their expedition, and as members of staff, we were tasked with letting them go off independently, but for health and safety reasons, we had to be nearby in case they needed anything, but obviously, we didn’t want them to know that we were there.
I remember [being] with the care staff literally hiding in a bush on the expedition and running behind tree to tree in like a stealth ninja attempt. I think they were completely oblivious to us being there, even when I tripped over a tree and ended up yelping. But for me, that was just hilarious. Literally, commando rolling across the path just to entertain ourselves while we were hiding under hedges.
What’s the one thing you wish people understood more about disability?
For me personally, I would like people to understand that disability is different for every person. You may have ten people in a room, all with the same medical condition, and it may affect them all completely differently. Some people are really open and happy to talk about their disability to other people. Some people prefer to be more private about it.
When it comes to talking about disability to people with a disability, I would like people to be very much led by that individual in terms of their attitude and the language they use because it will vary from person to person.
To find out more about Active8 and the fantastic work they do, click through to their website.
How is Bua working to foster independence?
A large part of Bua’s mission is to get disabled and neurodiverse people recognised as valuable contributors and help companies integrate them into their workforces. Being employed is a huge step in independence and helps increase autonomy. Get in touch to find out more.
About the Author
Lauren is a freelance writer from Falmouth. After graduating from university, she took a keen interest in writing about disability, so her story and others like it could be told with passion and conviction.