By Mia Vigar
Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions’ vision is:
“A world where disabled people live with no barriers and have a positive community experience, their individual aspirations are met and they have total choice and control.”
All social enterprises are unique, but TLS is doing something exceptional. However, after just thirty seconds on the phone with CEO Neil Woodbridge, it feels like an injustice that more disabled services providers aren’t adopting a similar approach to their provision.
The thing that makes TLS so brilliant at what they do isn’t just that this CIC puts its service users at the heart of its approach (in fact, Neil would prefer not to use the term service users) – it’s that the company is run by the very community it serves. Which of course, makes business sense, because who is better equipped to determine what’s appropriate?
“We’re unusual in that 100% of our board are people who identify as Disabled,” explains Neil. “They are experts-through-experience. We believe everybody has a gift and can contribute meaningfully. We look for strengths and help people to build on them. We are committed to helping disabled people to have the lifestyle they want.”
TLS’s methods are definitely working in Thurrock. The company is founded on the concept of ‘Asset Based Community Development’ (ABCD), which focuses on the strengths within a community and mobilising individuals, rather than identifying deficits and needs. This approach was founded by John L McKnight and John P Kretzmann at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and has been further championed by Cormac Russell, who Neil references. “Look him up,” he says, keen to educate.
I discover that Russell has championed ABCD for over 20 years in more than 30 countries, and watch his TEDx talk in which he opens with, “I believe that helping has a shadow side. I believe that certain styles of helping do more harm than good.”
It’s easy to see how this resonates with Neil and is exemplified in the work TLS does. “We shouldn’t start with what’s wrong, but what’s strong,” he says. “Through this, individuals become active citizens in control. It’s not an impairment that stops people from doing things, but the way society treats them. Disability is a social construct.”
But what does this actually mean for the way the organisation is run?
Well, actually it means a lot more than a mission statement. The organisation was created in 2007 and took its time to spin out, which it achieved in full in February, 2013. “Even back when working for the local authority, I had a reputation for being a bit of a maverick,” says Neil. “Which could be seen as disobedience when working for the council, but as a CIC, it’s business sense. Because we have our experts-through-experience running the company, they can identify what’s needed and where efficiencies can be made. We saved £400,000 per year for the local authority. We’ve been able to diversify our incomes, taking opportunities where we see them.”
TLS’s success seems to be two pronged. (i) Leaving the local authority to pursue their aspirations and run services how they believe they ought to be run has given them the freedom to cut fat and red tape, act agilely and nurture entrepreneurial attitudes.
And (ii) being driven by the community – in the way they deliver everything from personal assistants, interdependent living, learning tools, employment opportunities and other experiences – means they know exactly where to channel funds for the deepest impact. It absolutely makes sense they’d be thriving and financially growing: empowered communities collectively are able achieve more, for themselves and each other.
Neil Woodbridge peppers interviews with anecdotes that tell of disturbing and unjust systemic inequality around the way society treats disabled people. “Did you know that the life expectancy of a female disabled person is much shorter, not because of the disability, but the fact they might not be supported in reading the letters from the doctors telling them it’s time to get a smear test?”
Cancer is indiscriminate and there are a multitude of barriers standing between individuals unable to communicate symptoms or read calls-to-action and getting a diagnosis or treatment. Despite some growing awareness around this problem, data from 2016-17 (NHS Digital) shows females with disabilities can expect, on average, to live a life 18 years shorter than those without a disability, and males, 16 years shorter.
TLS are trying to address this in Thurrock. Being free to put their money behind what they believe in, they have identified 14 individuals they suspected of having a life-threatening issue and paid for them to have private checks. 11 of them came back with something serious and knowing this gives them significantly better chances.
When your community cares for you like this, it is a step towards having an improved life, but also makes monetary sense for government. The economics of prevention in all areas of health and care is fundamental in order to deal with growing pressures the health and care system faces in the 21stcentury. Closing the equality gap between disabled and non-disabled citizens would be more achievable if TLS’s approach was replicated more widely.
The cost-benefit argument for investing in strengths rather than problems is something a lot of service providers instinctively know to be true but aren’t always able to address as part of the public sector. When at Baxendale we talk about Public Service Mutuals having the autonomy to run their services in the way that benefits their service users most, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about: the ability to tailor your energies to what you see matters.
TLS saw immense untapped potential in their community and acted on it. “There’s a huge chasm for disabled people after school. It’s like they disappear off a cliff edge – or so society thinks. For us, they’re equal value partners, and we help them contribute meaningfully and have the choice to do what matters most to them.”
Watch their 10 year anniversary video: