Speaking for Guide Dogs

I recently took part in a speaker’s training day for The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. The training day took place at the Blind Veterans centre in Llandudno; a luxurious rehabilitation facility for visually impaired ex-Service men and women. I was part of a group of Guide dog owners, volunteers and Community Fundraisers who came together to learn how we can help represent Guide Dogs by speaking to the general public.

The aim of the day was to give us all the necessary information, techniques and tools to enable us to deliver presentations about the organisation. As Guide Dogs receive no government funding, they are entirely dependent on fundraising efforts and kind donations in order to keep funding the fantastic work that they do. Each dog can cost up to £50,000 throughout its lifetime, with advanced guiding training alone costing around £35,000 per dog. So I hope you’ll agree that funds are very much needed! One way of receiving these donations and recruiting more fundraisers is by delivering talks to groups, schools, companies etc. informing them of what exactly Guide Dogs do and how they can help.

Along with some helpful tips about the practical aspects of presentations, such as using PPT slides, effective use of props and engaging with the audience, we were also encouraged to tell our own stories of our experiences with Guide Dogs. Whether you’re a guide dog owner, boarder, puppy-walker or My Guide volunteer, everybody has their part to play in educating the public about what Guide Dogs do and how they change the lives of visually impaired people throughout the UK.

Some things to consider before speaking for Guide Dogs include:
· Timing – practice your talk, make note of how long it is and practice adjusting your script to fit the time you’re asked to speak for.

· Planning – Have an introduction, content (you’re experience) and a conclusion, making sure to mention ways that the audience can get involved. Use slides/notecards to keep you on track.

· Speak from experience – whatever your link to the charity, speaking from the heart will always make for a more effective presentation especially if your audience can sense your passion for the topic.

The training day was a great opportunity to meet with other locals involved with Guide Dogs and was really informative and helpful in giving me the confidence to speak on behalf of the charity. Being a bit of a newbie in Guide Dogs terms, having only had my first guide dog for six months, I now feel much better informed and qualified to answer the questions I get from the general public on a daily basis. The enthusiasm and passion of everyone in the group also motivated me to become a Speaker; to share my story with others, to inform and educate and to give something back to the charity who gave me my freedom, confidence and independence in the form of my beautiful Jazzy.

If you think you have a story to share, why not contact your local Guide Dogs Community Fundraiser who can let you know more about training and speaking opportunities. Alternatively, if you would like a Guide Dogs Speaker to visit your club, school or workplace to tell you more about Guide Dogs and how you can support this wonderful charity, why not contact your local Guide Dogs branch to organise a visit.

Visit http://www.guidedogs.org.uk to find out more about how you can support Guide Dogs.

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Defying the Label: Don’t Take My Baby on BBC3

The first in BBC3’s Defying the Label series, the BBC website describes Don’t Take My Baby as a “factual drama which tells the story of a disabled couple’s agonising struggle to keep their new-born baby. Based on real-life testimony, this emotional tale will call viewers’ prejudices and beliefs about the disabled community and society as a whole into question, as we learn about a situation many disabled couples find themselves in as new parents.” Wheelchair bound Anna and partially-sighted Tom undergo months of constant scrutiny and suspicion from Social Services while they’re assessed on their capability to care for their daughter Danielle, all the time knowing that one slip could mean their baby girl being sent into foster care if the couple fail to prove themselves as fit parents. Defying the Label is a series showing a range of real life stories in a disabling world. 

Personally, Don’t Take My Baby made for pretty difficult viewing. I loved the brutal honesty of the programme, something which I think was largely achieved thanks to the shared authorship with which it was written. I could identify with Anna’s determination to exceed everyone’s low expectations as well as Tom’s reluctance to concede help. Things like the 2010 Equality Act and development in technology are undeniably making it easier for people like Anna, Tom and myself to live in 21st century society, but unfortunately, a lot of the time attitudes towards disability are sadly lagging behind the times. Obviously this attitude is going to have an impact on society’s perception of disabled parents. Most people don’t even believe it possible for disabled people to have sexual relationships, let alone have children. So I hope Don’t Take My Baby broke down some of those misconceptions.

 

“Sometimes you’re told that something’s impossible and that’s when you need to fight”

 

Anna’s condition meant that her life expectancy has always been uncertain, and the dangers of giving birth posed great risk for both mother and child. At various points throughout the programme reference was made to the risk that baby Danielle might inherit one or both of her parents conditions. All of these possibilities are such that obviously require great care and consideration, but should they diminish the couple’s right to make that decision? Instead of treating them as irresponsible and selfish, shouldn’t they be helped and supported in every way possible to ensure a happy ending for the family?

 

“No one’s perfect are they? As long as you do your best, that’s all you can do.”

 

The immediate assumption was that this couple would fail to care for their own baby, despite the fact that they manage to care for themselves and each other every day. They were scrutinised for months, their parenting skills being constantly marked and tested against somebody’s criteria of what a good parent should be. Why disabled parents, and disabled people shouldn’t, be allowed to make mistakes like everyone else? Because if we make mistakes, it’s seen as weakness.

 

“Do you mind if I call you social worker number 454?”

 

Anna and Tom were constantly watched, being made to feel like everybody were just waiting to catch them out. When Anna and Tom made mistakes, it seemed that they were just proving that everyone else were right in thinking that their disabilities make them weak, faulty and incapable. When Social Services didn’t think that Anna and Tom were capable of taking care of Danielle, they had to go above and beyond to do everything perfectly. They had to be perfect in order to prove that they were just as capable as anyone else. But the truth is that they’re just as human as anyone else too; they made mistakes, they got tired, they got emotional and frustrated and lashed out at those they cared about sometimes. The point is that they should’ve been allowed to make mistakes so that they could learn from them. They should’ve been allowed to ask for help without feeling like failures for not being able to do it on their own. They should’ve been allowed to be human.

 

“You make a choice whether you’re going to be defined by your condition.”

 

Social services defined Anna and Tom by their conditions, as society defines thousands of disabled people by their conditions every day. The truth is that our impairments aren’t what disable us; society is what disables us by being exclusive, discriminating and intolerant of us a lot of the time. We all have a choice whether to be defined by our conditions or not. We can sit back and concede the lowered expectations, pity and misunderstanding that we might be faced with on a regular basis, or we can decide to fight those stereotypes. Most schools and workplaces aren’t set up all readily accessible for any disability that someone might have, but that shouldn’t stop you trying to get an education or a job. It’s your choice We can choose to be defined by our actions, not our impairments. We can choose to be defined by what we do instead of what we are.

 

“It’s your life, live by your own rules. If you want to fly, go fly…you know?”

 

Anna and Tom chose not to be defined by their conditions; they chose not to be confined to the expectations that the Social Services, their families and the rest of society had of them, they chose to live their lives as they wanted. They chose to have a baby. As a result they were mistrusted, underestimated and treated with suspicion because of this choice. They were immediately labelled as unfit parents and were forced to prove themselves otherwise before being allowed to take their own baby home. Thankfully they were able to demonstrate themselves more than capable of caring for their daughter and were allowed to take their baby home. But for thousands others, this isn’t the case.

 

“I don’t trust it. For Dani’s sake, I don’t trust it.”

 

An estimated 3000 babies are removed from their disabled parents every year. Is that really because their parents aren’t fit to care for them, or because those with the power to make that decision don’t trust the parents enough to give them a chance?

 

“It’s difficult to judge what being a good parent actually means, don’t you think?”

 

It would’ve been an entirely different programme if Social Services had the approach of assessing what help they could offer Anna and Tom with childcare, rather than taking the approach of testing the couples parenting skills with the possibility of Danielle being taken away constantly looming over their heads. We’d live in an entirely different society if we were more open to assessing how we can adjust to help people, rather than expecting everyone to adjust to doing things the ‘normal’ way. If our collective perception of disability could be more positive, more open-minded, more accepting, then maybe Children’s Services wouldn’t have to make 11,000 decisions involving disabled parents every year.

 

You can watch Don’t Take My Baby on the BBC iPlayer and the rest of the programmes in the Defying the Label series every night this week at 9pm on BBC3.

Common Purpose Frontrunner for Disabled Students in association with Santander

On the 7th of July, Jazzy and I set off for Newcastle to attend the Frontrunner Leadership Programme for disabled students. The course is run by Common Purpose and consists of three intense days of workshops, discussions and lectures intended to give us the tools to become the leaders of tomorrow.

“Common Purpose and Santander are working together to help empower disabled students in higher and further education to be leaders of the future. By empowering these young talents, we aim to increase the diversity of leadership in the United Kingdom.”

All that sounded quite daunting to me- I’ve never really thought of myself as a leader – to be honest I was very nervous when I stepped off the train in Newcastle, which is probably the reason why I very nearly left my suitcase sitting in the luggage rack! Thankfully I had a wonderful time, met a whole bunch of inspiring people and was sorry to leave on Thursday evening.

Day one: Getting to know you

We’d been sent a welcome pack beforehand with an itinerary and biographies of the other participants, so I had a rough idea of who and what I was in for. The course appeared to be very well organised and the organisers extremely helpful and efficient in identifying any requirements you might have, which went a long way in tempering my anxiety.

I was met at the station by one of the organisers who walked me to the hotel and showed me to my room. We were staying in The Jury’s in which was just a short walk from the station and was very swanky. After I unpacked our bags and Jazzy sniffed every inch of the room (just checking for monsters under the bed, forgotten biscuits etc.) we headed down stairs for dinner. Everyone was shown to their seat and given an ice-breaker question to help fill any awkward silences. Thankfully I didn’t have to break out my question at any point; everyone was friendly and chatty, and I soon felt pretty comfortable. After dinner most of the group on my table relocated to the bar, where we continued the introductions and conversation veered in all sorts of directions from the latest season of Game of Thrones to our range of disabilities.

When getting ready for bed that night, I felt reasonably happy with how things were going so far. Everyone seemed approachable and open-minded; we were a very diverse bunch as I don’t think there were any two people with the same disability or studying the same subject among us. I felt that there was a refreshingly general feeling of acceptance within the group. Everyone seemed happy to help and support each other, which I thought was promising for the days to come.

Day two: learning to lead

The first day of the course we were up bright and early for Breakfast and to gather in our allocated taxi groups to journey over to The Royal Station Hotel, where the course was being heled. We were based in a very professional feeling conference room where tables had been set up on one side for group work and chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle on the other. For the first exercise of the day, we’d all been asked to bring with us an object to represent ourselves that we would present for the group. I had initially planned to take along my iPod, but at the last minute grabbed the t-shirt I bought at a recent Taylor Swift concert which I hoped would represent the thrill I get from throwing myself into anything and everything. It was an interesting if nerve wracking exercise with creative juices flowing freely; a couple of my favourites being an umbrella representing how someone might seem closed and shy at first but can open up as you get to know them and a bag of Lego demonstrating how someone was trying to rebuild their life.

An eye-opening exercise was the task of coming to a group consensus on whether we agreed or disagreed with a number of controversial statements e.g. “same sex marriage should be legalised” and “the death penalty is an effective method of crime prevention”. It was quite a challenging task for a group of strangers and required us to be open-minded and mindful of other’s opinions. Needless to say, we got to know each other pretty quickly!

We were fortunate to be joined by three speakers that day, including Michael Wilde, Political Programme Editor for the BBC – North East and Cumbria region, who lead a discussion on methods of effective questioning. We were also joined by Vidar Hjardengh, Diversity Consultant for ITV News and Chris Carson, Head of Corporate Services at HMP Durham who shared some of their valuable insights into their thoughts about leadership, drawing from their own experiences.

That first day was intense but definitely interesting and set the pace for the rest of the course. I enjoyed each speaker’s contributions and found myself being challenged more than I’d anticipated. By dinner everyone had gotten to know each other much better and the atmosphere was relaxed, if a little tired. Jazzy made me proud by behaving immaculately all day, though she didn’t appreciate being left out of the circle during one of the activities.

Day three: I’ve got the Power!

The following day was all about power; who has it, how to gain it, how to use it. After a brief outlining of the days objectives, we were joined by Nick Swales, Regional Director at Rathbones Investments and Chairman of the Percy Hedley Foundation who spoke to us about where power lies in a city and the role of power within leadership.

Before I knew it, the time had come for what I considered to be the most exciting but challenging aspect of the course – the raid visits. We were split into groups and given briefs for which organisation we would be sent to after lunch, where we would be given a real-life organisational problem to come up with solutions for. To my utter disbelief, I was nominated team leader for the raid. I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly authoritative and usually tend to shy away from the spotlight, but this was not the time to pass the buck of responsibility to somebody else – this was the time to challenge myself.

My group were asked to present some ideas to increase engagement among customers of an organisation who provides housing and other support to vulnerable people. As team leader, I was tasked with introducing us to our hosts, keeping us on track during discussions and giving the thank you’s at the end. It was definitely a challenge coming up with something realistic and feasible in the limited time we had, but we worked brilliantly as a team and got some great feedback from our hosts who seemed really impressed with our ideas. Upon returning to the venue after the raid, we were asked to give each member of the group constructive feedback on their performance. Because of the respectful attitudes of everyone, it was a great way of finding out what you should work on as well as what you did well.

We set up camp in a corner of a nearby pub after dinner to celebrate our success in the raids and make the most of our last night in Newcastle. We let our hair down – me with a couple of cocktails, Jazzy milking every dog lover in the room for all they were worth.

Day four: Graduation

I woke up on the last day of the course with mixed feelings; while I was looking forward to being reunited with my own bed at home, I would be sorry to leave the friends I’d made and the supportive and encouraging environment of the programme. Never the less I got on with packing, all be it a little wobbly (I may or may not have still been feeling the effect of those cocktails).

The first session of the day was all about challenging yourself. Programme Coordinator Genevieve Bar shared her experiences of challenging herself by attempting to follow an acting career as a deaf actress. Following this, she asked all of us to challenge ourselves by pushing ourselves to improve whatever we need to work on to be good leaders. For me, this is public speaking. So when Jen asked for volunteers for the next exercise called soapboxing, it seemed like an opportunity stupid to pass up. Soapboxing means to get a message across to a number of people promoting your own agenda. I was challenged with speaking for a minute in front of everyone about something I am passionate about, so somewhat obviously maybe, I chose to talk about Guide Dogs. It was scary and daunting and my legs shook the whole time, but I was pleasantly surprised to get lots of good feedback afterwards and to have the most votes for best delivery! I’m sure the fact that I had the advantage of an adorable prop at my feet had nothing to do with it 😉

For the next sessions we were joined by even more speakers including Kerrey Baker, Marketing and Relationship Manager at SharedInterest, Beth Hazen, Senior Account Director at Drummand Central, Stuart Birkett, Managing Director at NCJ Media, Ian Miller, Opperations Director at GEM Partnership and Steve Irish who is the Regional Manager for Newcastle at Santander who were all very helpful in answering our questions about how they resonate their ideas and lead.

After lunch we discussed the importance of the network we had created on the course while sharing our thoughts about what we have learned about leadership during the last couple of days, before we graduated from the programme. For graduation, everyone was given someone else’s certificate and had to present that certificate to its owner, along with a few words about what they might have learned from or with that person during the programme. It was a really nice touch to end on, again testing your ability to think on your feet but also creating a real sense of community within the group.

Unfortunately I had to rush off for my train before the course had officially finished so didn’t get a chance to speak to everyone before leaving; a good thing probably as I’m not great at goodbyes! On the journey home from Newcastle to Bangor however I had a long time to think about everything I’d learned, about leadership and about myself. It was definitely a challenging and inspiring programme that I’d recommend to anyone with a passion for making change. Common Purpose appear to be an extremely innovative and inclusive organisation which I really look forward to working with in the future.