Lives can change in a moment. Alan Reid’s did. Today he’s the CEO of Blackpool based Disability First, the charity which led on the recent partnership bid for almost £1m of Coastal Communities funding to open up the Fylde Coast to a wider market – and got it,
Alan’s worked with the charity, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this month, since 1988. No, it doesn’t add up. The anniversary commemorates the charity’s fightback from a closure threat, reinvented under different management, thriving rather than just surviving, and later even helped back into its original base on Whitegate Drive, the old community centre magically transformed into the Centre for Independent Living by Single Regeneration Budget funding and the vision of Blackpool Council’s Alan Cavill.
Now that’s a story in its own right but let’s just back track the better part of 38 years to learn just what put Alan on a very different career path. I’ve wanted to tell this story since I got to know Alan as a result of the threat to the charity all those years ago.
Back then I was a journalist and the stories I most wanted to write were the ones that fell into the “worthy but dull” category – “disability” and “charity” being two words to strike a chill when selling a story to a news editor. I knew then, as now, that real life stories resonate but I settled for the fact that my own newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, still backed the campaign to save the charity to the hilt – which is just one of the many reasons I’d fight to my last breath to keep a local newspaper at the heart of any local community. They deliver far more than we realise. It’s an enduring legacy.
Ironically, it’s only this year as an independent PR for the last five, raising the profile of smaller independent charities which do so much good in the shadow of the big national names, that I’ve finally forced Alan to crack. He’s widely held to have had the drive, determination and focus to steer Disability First onwards and upwards. Lot of motoring cliches there. It’s by accident rather than design.
And it was by accident rather than design that Alan became involved in the charity. At 20 years old he was living his dream, a musician by night, keyboards/vocals, in Blackpool’s bars, clubs, theatres. By day he was a jobbing actor, a TV extra, for bit parts and walk on roles. Salford soap one day, Crown Court as a juror the next.
Brideshead Revisited, which was to prove the definitive drama of the age, had a buzz about it even in the early days of filming – the Evelyn Waugh horse set in the run up to the Second World War. It was the kind of thing the BBC did so well – but this was Granada. Laurence Olivier was the biggest star cast but the younger actors would go onto become household names in their own right.
Into the spotlight, however briefly, stepped Alan, playing a young soldier having his collar straightened on a makeshift train by Captain Charles Ryder – played by Jeremy Irons who would ultimately eclipse his peers.
“Blink and you’d miss it,” says Alan, of Blackpool, of the role.
It was, Alan says, some 48 hours after the accident that followed before he was able to open one eye again. Let alone blink.
It was 60 hours before he opened the other and began to assess just what happens after a hefty Volvo estate has crashed into a stalled Mini – his stalled Mini – pinning it against the crash barrier on the M6 motorway, and splicing the petrol tank, which instantly ignited.
Both cars went up in flames. Alan, 20, had to be dragged out by two motorists who had pulled over, helped by the third – of the car immediately behind him. Neither had suffered broken bones but Alan had third degree burns to much of his body. “My skin had gone, I was leaking fluid, my head had swollen, my eyes had closed.”
He heard the sirens from the front seat of another man’s car. By then he was way past pain. That came with the skin grafts that followed, years of surgery to patch him up, in every sense, and, thanks to the skill of the surgeon, rebuild and restore his musician’s hands.
Today he’s still a musician, plays keyboards, sings, wins great reviews for such. In fact a recent charity fundraiser hosted by Alan at his regular residency – Bispham Conservative Club – and featuring comedian Johnnie Casson raised more than £700. Alan brings an entertainer’s understated but innate confidence to anything he presents for the charity he heads today. It’s his skill as a networker which wins the rave reviews now – for it was Alan who spotted and seized the Coastal Communities funding opportunity and galvanised others into forming an influential alliance to back the bid, advised at every step by the Blackpool Wyre and Fylde Disability Partnership.
It was a different story back in the early 80s – when early hopes of life returning to normal were dashed.
“The sister said you’ll be in and out of hospital for the next five years. You won’t look the same and you won’t be able to do some of the things you could.
“To call it a bombshell would put it too lightly. It was like the world had collapsed. They actually brought me a bottle of whiskey.”
“It sounds all gloom and doom but the laughs we had on that ward meant a lot when you’re there for 10-12 weeks.
“The nurses brought me out of myself. They would send me off to chat to patients who were fed up. It was like a war zone. You made friends in adversity. I lost friends in there too. It made me realise I wanted to help people.
“I started getting on with life again. I could go down the top myself route or kick myself up the backside and get on with it. I got on with it.”
Outside, he learned to deflect the stares and questions. “I think that’s when the sick jokes started. Do you smoke? Only on the M6.”
He had eight operations under general anaesthetic and as many more under local anaesthetic over the years that followed – until he declared enough was enough.
He had already resumed his music. “There wasn’t much call for an extra with my looks back then… I went back into music. Without getting into musical theory I had to change the way I did fingering and the inversion of chords because of my limitations.
“It was a real challenge. The other challenge was the public. They saw this guy who looked like Niki Lauda getting on stage – when they were used to everything and everyone on stage looking beautiful and pretty.
“My wife, family and friends got me through. It’s only very occasionally now that people make the odd comment. Simon Weston changed perceptions – a year after my accident he was on telly and everything he said resonated with me, I just relived it all, the dressings, the pain, the morphine, skin grafts.”
His loss was the charity’s gain. What he saw in hospital and on the burns and orthopaedic unit, what he learned about himself there, made him want to help people.
“Up until then I was quite reserved. It brought me out. It made me see life.” He also had to come to terms with the death of several friends made on the wards. “I remember making friends with a young woman and being utterly shocked when she left as an amputee. You realise life can change in a moment. Just as mine did when my car stalled in the middle lane of the M6 near the Preston junction on the way home.”
Alan signed up as a volunteer with the charity in 1988 and was soon co-ordinating the other volunteers. He was taken on staff as manager, a role now held by the newly promoted Lindsay Barlow, a young woman with formidable organisational skills. Last year Alan became CEO.
Alan, 58, has not only helped the charity fight back – but it’s helped him too.
“I’d find it hard to retire,” he admits. “Coming here is my therapy, my tonic, my elixir. Here people see me for who I am. They accept me.”
Others agree. Brian Carney, trustee, a high powered sales and marketing executive until multiple sclerosis forced his early retirement on medical grounds, pays pays tribute to Alan’s drive and determination.
“This charity would not be in the position is is today without Alan, his drive and passion to take the charity forward. The people around him support him but it is Alan’s focus.”
The charity’s helped Brian too. He now uses his considerable people-skills to help others fill in claims for benefits, a process many dread and find over facing. Yet he found himself on the other side of the process after the introduction of Personal Independent Payments (to replace Disabled Living Allowance for 16 to 64 year olds) saw his former entitlement to the higher rate mobility component (now known as enhanced rate mobility) scrapped.
He explains: “It meant I was no longer eligible for Motability so my car went back – along with my freedom and mobility. You can’t keep it pending appeal. It’s like a presumption of guilt until proven innocent.
“I was so frustrated and upset I sat down and cried when I finally got the charity. My MS is here to stay. I’m not going to get better but I’ll get by as best as I can for as long as I can – with support. I can’t walk far. I get fatigued quickly. I use a wheelchair. Yet they decided I could walk 20m.
“I didn’t just lose the car, my wife lost the car, my family lost the car. I had to borrow £1k from my mum to buy a second hand car. Six months later I sold it for £400.”
Brian contacted his MP Paul Maynard (Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys) and was about to appeal through the charity when the DWP called to confirm he was entitled to enhanced rate mobility. “The MP’s secretary had been in touch,” says Brian. “They said my fatigue had not been taken into account. I had to wait six months for a new car. No one compensates you for putting you through hell.
“But I’ve seen it from the other side now – and that will help me really know how others feel.”
At the charity’s 25th celebration, this month, client Teresa Gresswell paid tribute to another MP’s intervention too – as well as the charity’s sustained support.
Gordon Marsden ( Labour MP for Blackpool South) – who has spoken in the House in praise of the charity – stepped into support her bid for funding. Teresa revealed how a medic, to whom she had turned for help, had told her: “What do you expect me to do about it? I’m not the DWP.”
Teresa has since won her claim – and it’s been backdated. “I smile when I see the charity when I’m on the bus,” she admitted. “They were the first to see me – as me. They’re not looking down, or at their phone, or watch, or tapping away. They make eye contact. And they care enough to do something to help.”
She was thrilled to finally be able to thank her “hero” MP Marsden “I can’t believe I’ve met you after all you’ve done for me. I’m actually shaking.”
A quarter of a century on Disability First chief Alan Reid reckons the charity is needed more than ever before – as welfare ‘reforms’ drive more off benefits and onto the breadline.
“It’s going to get a lot worse,” he warns. “Just look at what’s happening with Universal Credit.
“We’re not here to dupe the system but help people who are being badly failed by the system – we won’t take on an appeal unless we’re 100 per cent convinced the claim is justified.”
The charity has secured almost £47k in welfare benefits for clients this year – many awards secured for three to five years.
Carol Reid – who joined her parents to buy a keyboard from Alan for their hotel and left with a husband to be back in the mid-80s- also works at the charity today and, among other cancer support services, runs a specialist advice service for asbestos related conditions with colleague Andy Coupland.
This year they have supported 34 patients including a former dockyard-based technical design officer diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. “He didn’t even know what asbestos was,” says Carol.
As a result of their support he not only received support with welfare benefits but a further £153, 411 in legal compensation.
Patients who wish to seek legal advice, having contracted the condition in the work place, often many years ago, now have the option of consulting any one of a panel of four solicitors Paul Glanville (Asbestos Law Partnership), Jon Anderson and Gill Owen (Slater and Gordon) and Kevin Johnson (Leigh Day) – or their own solicitor or declining legal advice and representation. (Pictured with charity trustee Jennifer Jaynes.)
Today, the charity is preparing to deliver arguably its most enduring legacy – the Access Fylde Coast project, on which it leads. This is the project which clinched £985,222 from the Coastal Communities Fund. in September. The partnership includes Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Councils, Blackpool Transport, Marketing Lancashire, Lancaster University, Disabled Go, Blackpool BID Coastal Community teams and the Volunteering Centre.
In strategist-speak it’s all about developing “an over arching welcome” to disabled visitors and residents.
In Alan-speak it’s about getting disabled people “off Planet Disability, a totally separate community, and into the main community.”
The project officially launches in April in Blackpool. There are already plan for disability awareness training courses, trained access guides, business accessibility audits, accessibility enhancements to existing events across the Fylde Coast to attract a wider market, new events and exhibitions specifically targeted at people with disabilities, cultural and heritage trails supported by app and other accessible information, best practice events and high profile business leaders to act as ambassadors to promote Access Fylde Coast.
Charity stalwart and veteran hate crime campaigner Stephen Brookes, now Rail Sector Disability Champion for the Minister for Disabled People, lays the spending power of the so-called Purple Pound very firmly on the line. It’s said to be worth at least £250bn to the economy.
“We need to welcome disability, not just tolerate it. We are here, we have money to spend in businesses. If we can’t get the space, the facilities, we just won’t go there. Can you afford to ignore the spending power of disabled people in Britain?”
In conclusion, a small independent charity with just four members of staff and five trustees – backed by an army of volunteers – will be shouting that message from the rooftops (or Tower top).
Isn’t it time the rest of us listened?
Today, as chairman of trustees Kevin Spencer, concludes: “Disability First has a purpose, it has a history, it has a reputation, and it has impetus, a momentum, which in turn – gives it a future.
“We look forward to the next 25 years.”
The team at the 25th celebration
Kevin Spencer, chairman of trustees, with Kamran Mallick, keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary party, CEO of Disability Rights UK