Posted 02.09.2021

Disability Equality North West is a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) that started in 1996, based in Preston, Lancashire, and celebrated their 25th anniversary this year furthering the rights of disabled people across Lancashire.  The organisation is run and controlled by disabled people. The main aim is to further the human rights of disabled people across the North West and and they provide a number of user-led services to support disabled people and achieve this aim. The different services have arisen out of local community needs and they promote the Social Model of Disability.


1. What difference has the pandemic made to the communities you serve?

Disability Equality nw received NET DPO COVID-19 Emergency Funding for a six month Community Link Project, which has been a mixture of researching the impact of the pandemic on disabled people and sign-posting disabled people to support services within Disability Equality or to other agencies. 

At the start of the pandemic we quickly responded to the new arrangements needed to provide on-going support to our clients and began the task of ‘safe and well’ calls to over 3,000 disabled members or clients associated with our organisation.

There were many people struggling with the sudden withdrawal of support services such as day services, respite care, schools and colleges, external care agencies and the inability to access leisure services, retail, health services etc.

This put intense pressure on some families both the disabled person and the people they live with causing extreme isolation and distress, particularly for people with dementia, on the autisic spectrum or those with a learning disability.

These issues have been borne out by our contact with over 200 disabled people for our Community Link Project. We conducted telephone interviews, distributed an on-line survey and facilitated numerous focus groups to find out from disabled people what were the biggest impacts of the pandemic.

Overwhelmingly the lack of access to services and the withdrawal of the majority of ‘face-to-face’ services had a huge impact. Deaf people in particular felt ‘cut adrift’ even more so during the pandemic. It was noted that the daily COVID-19 updates on mainstream news programmes did not feature BSL signers for many, many months.

Similarly, the government’s ‘ambiguous’ messaging caused untold problems for disabled people as much of the government guidance and the changing nature of it was open to interpretation. For example, over 400 disabled people outside of the scope of this project contacted us from across the country recounting humiliating and discriminatory behaviour towards them around the use of and exemption status wearing face coverings.

Many disabled people who are exempt from wearing face masks were denied access to retail, hospitality, health and leisure services (when open) in an arbitrary and unaccountable way.

This put a lot of pressure on our services and we sign-posted people from outside of Lancashire to national organisations such EHRC or Disability Rights.

One of the positives to emerge from the pandemic for disabled people was the almost forced introduction to on-line communication systems and programmes. Many people have gained new IT skills and access to assistive technology and we hope to sustain this.


2. What impact did you see on your services as a result?

The impact upon our service was quite dramatic and those of us who provided public facing duties in ordinary times, were re-deployed to working from home and the welfare calls and our targets were to contact everyone weekly during the first three months of the pandemic. These calls were made by staff 100% working from home and we introduced PPE provision and delivery across Lancashire utilising volunteers.

One of the biggest challenges for us was to ensure that staff were provided with IT equipment and internet access at minimal disruption to themselves, home / work space risk assessments, financial and work/family life balances and personal implications of home working.

We had unplanned expense and investment in on-line telecommunication systems and equipment for staff working from home but the challenges arose when some of our clients and new clients referred to our contracted services didn’t have compatible on-line systems e.g. zoom, Microsoft team etc. as we reverted to telephone / text support and processes.

By contrast, we introduced different training programmes and on-going support meetings via zoom, which have been highly successful as the on-line element extended our reach and we engaged with disabled people beyond our usual catchment area of Lancashire.

We benefitted from the small grant funding during the pandemic to reach out to the Deaf and hard of hearing communities and other minority so-called, ‘hard to reach’ communities with our projects.

3. What has the NET funding enabled you to do for those people you help?

We have engaged with hundreds of disabled people as described above as part of the Community Link Project.

Many of the participants expressed issues and support needs that we address by initially providing a listening ear and then sign-posting to existing Disability Equality services and other support or specialist agencies.

Some of the issues we have encountered include isolation and loneliness, mental health / depression, housing needs, social care needs, domestic abuse, welfare benefits advice and we developed a database of additional support services. We were able to sign-post or refer individuals to befriending services, mental health helplines, housing and benefits advice, social services and many other voluntary sector organisations and crisis support.

The additional benefit of being part of an existing DPO is that disabled people can become involved in peer support activities, training and mentoring and the focus groups provided that first stepping stone.


4. What challenges/opportunities do you see ahead?

The NET project has provided us with a wealth of data and the authentic experiences of disabled people that will help us to plan for future services and projects.

Whilst we have broadened our knowledge base and expanded our reach largely due to the increased use of IT, we acknowledge that assistive technology and other economic factors is not an option for countless disabled people. This is particularly true for disabled people living independently or semi-independently in the community.

The vulnerability to exploitation, abuse, digital exclusion and other social and health inequalities is still apparent and should be a shared challenge for DPO’s regionally.

Many working disabled people and colleagues reported the benefits of remote working; less stress not having to travel to the workplace, feeling safer and having access to new technology, which may be less available as the pandemic regulations ease and, therefore, less opportunity for disabled people to be employed.

We must maximise the opportunities that technology and on-line communication systems bring in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The challenge is not to leave those who can least afford it or cannot access it, behind.


5. The future of DPO’s - Why DPOs are important and why we need to invest in them and protect them in the future?

General feedback from disabled people during the pandemic was that we were one of only a few (if any) where there was a ‘real’ person at the end of the phone and the ‘added value’ is that disabled people (in the main) are providing services and supporting disabled people. Peer support is a bedrock of all DPO’s and should be celebrated and valued more widely.

    The wealth of experience and knowledge is (or should be) invaluable to statutory services and the way services are regulated and planned, that are accessible and fit for purpose.

    Disabled people and their authentic voices should be central to all strategic and operational plans across the board with in health, criminal justice, private sectors and local authorities.

    DPO’s are best placed to provide that level of expertise and authenticity and for too long their involvement has been piecemeal and tokenistic. The pandemic exposed social and health inequalities and deep-rooted negative attitudes towards disabled people that are too lengthy to go into in this response but they must be faced and addressed collectively and collaboratively in the future and of which we would welcome a part to play.

    Read Disability Equality nw's report on The Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on disabled people in Lancashire (July 2021)

    Read more about Disability Equality North West