Difference not disability

Toby Hewson, Founder of Just Different; Mark Spofforth, High Sheriff of West Sussex; and Alison Wright, Workshop Presenter at Just Different. Picture by Andrew Mardell.

Toby Hewson, Founder of Just Different; Mark Spofforth, High Sheriff of West Sussex; and Alison Wright, Workshop Presenter at Just Different. Picture by Andrew Mardell.

A quick peruse of Sussex census records from the mid to late 19th century throws up a startling use of words to describe people with disabilities: Rotherfield-born almsman William Parker is described as a ‘cripple’, as is Jane Wright from Peasmarsh. 12-year-old Thomas Kenwood, born St Leonards in 1859, is an ‘imbecile’ and Elizabeth Godden of Newhaven is a ‘lunatic’. Thankfully, as the years have gone by, attitudes to people with disabilities have changed - much too slowly for many but they have and that is reflected in important legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010 by which ‘employers and service providers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to their workplaces to overcome barriers experienced by disabled people’. As well as the law changes, there has been a rise in self-advocacy by people with disabilities. That is, the pendulum has swung away from people with disabilities having decisions made for them without much or indeed any consultation to people with disabilities finding their own voice and making their own choices.

Sussex Community Foundation has funded a number of Sussex charities doing very positive work around disability, such as Brighton-based Stay Up Late’s Gig Buddy scheme which matches people with learning disabilities with music fans who can support them to go to gigs and Asperger’s Voice in Burgess Hill, where people with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism support each other to develop skills in self-advocacy.

Another such group is Just Different, a small Walberton charity launched in 2008 by its founder, Toby Hewson, a young man with cerebral palsy. The group, which has received five grants worth a total of £13,459 from Sussex Community Foundation since 2010, creates positive social attitudes towards disability and difference among children and young people. They do this through the delivery of interactive, thought-provoking, educational and inspirational workshops that are written, created and delivered by adults with disabilities. When visiting schools, Toby observed that children and young people responded to his physical difference with imagination and curiosity. They viewed his wheelchair and speech synthesizer (communicator) with fascination, learning that they are simply tools to assist him with his active life. “We believe that real change is possible in the way that people view those with disabilities and difference. Children engage with our presenters with open-minded enthusiasm, free from the preconceived ideas that some adults hold,” says Toby, pictured here with the new High Sheriff of West Sussex, Mark Spofforth, when he visited the group recently.

For more information about Just Different, visit www.justdifferent.org

The next deadline for grant applications to Sussex Community Foundation is Friday 15th July. www.sussexgiving.org.uk/apply