Mental health a ‘big issue’ for disabled through the pandemic

Bournemouth-based Access Dorset is run by and for disabled people, offering a wealth of support right at the heart of the community.

Whether members need financial advice or just a chat in the cafe, the door is open, says development manager Dave Thompson: “We’re very much led by our membership. We’re all about empowering, enabling and giving a voice to people who face barriers to inclusion. Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves as disabled people, we are proud of who we are.”

Access Dorset aims to break down barriers, organise healthy-living activities and build confidence through goal setting and vocational training. It is a welcoming place – and one that was much missed during lockdown, so everyone’s delighted to be meeting face to face once again.

Volunteer and activity co-ordinator Belinda Reay says, “A lot of the volunteers in the cafe are younger, while most of our customers are older, so you get that beautiful connection where people who were isolated start chatting.

“One of our members was shielding during lockdown – she’s in her early thirties, and her boyfriend and football season ticket are her life. Then suddenly she had to stay home, and she found the isolation really hard. We maintained contact, but there’s such a difference now she’s able to come out and volunteer and get involved in activities again.”

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And those activities have been well received, from football, badminton and an exercise class to walking groups and relaxing in the sensory garden.

These are possible thanks to funding from People’s Health Trust, using money raised through The Health Lottery, which supports 3,200 grassroots projects across Great Britain – over 340 of which are in the South West. Whenever you buy a ticket, you’re helping to raise much-needed funds for good causes like Access Dorset – and you’re in with a chance of winning a cash prize. A whopping £156 million has been won so far, with more than £120 million raised.

“That money has been absolutely wonderful,” says Belinda. “Last year was an isolating time for everyone, and I think it kind of brought loneliness into everyone’s life – which is what someone who is disabled faces every day. With the money raised through The Health Lottery, we were able to run more sessions that our members have asked for, such as the exercise classes.

“We also hired a facilitator to run art sessions, and we’ve got some plans for summer socials. Our members mentioned that there weren’t a lot of options for safe evening activities, so we’ve got a DJ, a sports night and a barbecue coming up.”

Dave says that having support from funds raised through The Health Lottery to help the charity to build on their plans has been a huge bonus. “The funding is crucial – and the fact that it will last over two years is incredibly important to us,” he says. “These activities can be absolutely vital in keeping people going. A big issue over this past year has been mental health and we’re getting feedback from our members that having something to focus on on a regular basis was essential.”

“The funding makes the difference between isolation and loneliness, and real connection and community,” adds Belinda.

‘It’s like a big, happy family’

Rob Picken is a volunteer with Access Dorset. “We’ve got various projects, such as cooking and building,” he explains. “My main role is to support and encourage others, and try and get them to come out of their shells. To say, ‘You can do this.’

“Volunteering is so rewarding, and everybody’s so supportive. It’s like one big, happy family. We have mental health sessions on a Friday, where we check in and see how everybody’s doing and if someone’s having a bad day we can help them through it. Speaking from experience, I’m one of those people you really have to poke with a stick to get them to talk, so it’s important not to push people and let them open up at their own pace.”

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