Richard Kramer, Deputy CEO of Sense, talks about his vision for the disability charity, as he steps into the role of CEO next month.
Why is the work of Sense so important?
RK: Sense exists to make a difference. Sense is important because of our tremendous work in helping people live the lives they want day in, day out. It’s giving people the opportunities to live life to the fullest. It’s about individuals enjoying life.
At the same time, we know that too many individuals with complex disabilities and their families have to battle a system to get appropriate support and achieve some basic rights such as communication, independence, friendships, accessing their community and to feel included. That is why Sense exists – here for every disabled person who faces tough communication barriers in a world that relies on being able to see and hear well to be connected.
Sense really gives you an opportunity to connect and understand how individuals with complex disabilities experience life. Taking the time to appreciate an individual’s different view of the world is personally enriching. It opens up a new world to you. This is where the real power of connection exists, because when we connect with the people we support, we reveal new capacities not just in others but in ourselves. I have learnt a lot about myself through the work we provide.
What’s your vision for Sense as you step into the role of CEO?
RK: I want to position Sense firmly in the space of supporting disabled people with the most complex disabilities. This is where our strength and experience as an organisation lies. We have a compelling story to tell. We need to talk about our work more, in how we meet needs, the difference and impact we make, and the case for supporting Sense. If we have a clearer narrative, we can change the national conversation on disability so that it is more inclusive for those with the more complex disabilities and hopefully encourage more people to support us and be commissioned to deliver more services.
Secondly, we have the opportunity to use the strength of the organisation more. It is through collaboration with others whether it is staff, volunteers, members and supporters, that we can achieve change, be creative and create things not possible without that engagement. That means listening to our stakeholders more and providing a clearer direction.
I’m proud of the excellent services Sense provides. Thanks to our specialist knowledge and skills in communication, we often succeed where other providers have failed. We will also continue to innovate – we recently opened the TouchBase Pears centre in Birmingham, which signals a new way of delivering services for Sense. The Touchbase model means delivering quality support to individuals in the heart of their communities, whilst providing opportunities for disabled and non-disabled people to spend time together in a natural environment. We will look to replicate this approach across our current services and develop new services based on its key principles.
What are the challenges facing Sense?
RK: Like all charities, we have had to take some tough choices and steer through financial difficulties. Sometimes, we feel we are constantly battling with additional pressures and costs and an uncertain financial environment. However, that is the environment that all charities operate in and will continue to do so.
Of course, this impacts on the daily experiences of families and disabled children and adults. 69% of families of disabled children don’t receive any support outside the family home, half of local authorities are cutting short breaks, increasing numbers of adults don’t receive support for adult social care and older people with sensory impairments feel alone and cut off from society.
Sense faces the challenge of staff recruitment and retention, which is a problem shared by many in the sector. Although this continues to be an issue for us, we find that Sense is able to retain staff longer than some of our competitors as we not only offer staff a chance to change the lives of people for the better, but also to develop their own skills. We also recognise that life experiences can be just as valuable as having lots of qualifications and we encourage people with an interest or background, in art or sport for example, to include that in the support we give individuals.
What are the most important things you’d like to see change for disabled people?
RK: Many people within the disability sector have been concerned about the past cuts to welfare budgets, without extra funding for social care. So we do need to be vigilant and not be afraid to speak out, provided what we say is evidence based and offers solutions.
But we need to navigate another approach in order to break down the “them and us” mentality. Both the government and the disability sector should explore how we can reframe the debate and work together to deliver a good life for disabled people.
The starting point is how we can work together to improve the life chances of disabled people. From childhood to old age, disabled people with complex disabilities need to be given equal opportunities and control over their lives. We would look to the government to engage and work with charities and stakeholders such as Sense, to develop a government-wide plan for disabled people and ensure individuals can receive every opportunity in life to reach their potential.
We also appreciate that part of a good life goes beyond what the government can achieve. Disability is everyone’s business and we need to ensure that we value disabled people, their rights, their assets and their contribution. Through our campaign on loneliness, we’ve discovered just how hard people find it. to be active in parts of their community, to form relationships and to have the same life chances as everyone else. We all benefit from seeking to create connections by focusing on our similarities and shared interests than differences.
There is clearly a huge challenge here and undoubtedly more questions than answers too at the moment. But more of the same isn’t a viable or feasible option for the lives of disabled people with complex needs across the UK.