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Giving Dorset: Lifetime partnerships

Diverse Abilities Plus helps some of the most challenged children and adults in Dorset to maximise their potential. John Newth has learnt more about its work.

Diverse Abilities Plus has a sensory room at Langside School to improve engagement with children

‘The Paralympics showed that disability doesn’t necessarily exclude you. It made people more accepting and admiring of the fact that those with disabilities can do amazing things.’ The speaker is Mark Powell, Chief Executive of Diverse Abilities Plus, but for the origin of the charity he heads, the clock must be turned back 65 years to the very different attitudes to disability that were the norm in another year of London Olympics, 1948.
In that year Marilyn Edwards was born in Bournemouth with what was eventually diagnosed as cerebral palsy. Her mother, Phyllis Edwards, was given advice that was standard at that time: ‘Put her away in an institution, dear. She’ll never be more than a cabbage.’ The redoubtable Phyllis, sure that there should be better opportunities for children like her daughter, wrote a letter to the Bournemouth Echo and had a response from a handful of other mothers in a similar position to hers. From that initiative was born in 1955 the Bournemouth and District Group of the National Spastics Society. Today, as an independent charity and re-named Diverse Abilities Plus, it supports 450 families across Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth, involving a variety of disabilities and no longer just cerebral palsy. As the name implies, the emphasis throughout is not on disability but on what can be achieved. ‘Terms like cerebral palsy or autism don’t define people’, says Mark Powell. ‘Their abilities do, and we look for those individual abilities and work on them to maximise potential.’
One of the earliest and most lasting achievements was the establishment of Langside Centre, now Langside School, in Alder Hills, Poole, in 1959. There were fifteen pupils to begin with, a number that has now grown to 32, ranging in age from 2½ to 19. It caters for those so profoundly affected by learning and physical difficulties that not even the excellent local special schools can cater for their needs. With a ratio of more than one member of staff to each pupil, it has extensive medical facilities. Just as important, it uses tools like a sensory room, specialist training areas, speech and language therapy to develop even the most limited abilities to the maximum. Mark explains: ‘The aim is to find the right trigger, and then pupils at Langside can do things that most people, including much of the medical establishment, would say that they cannot do.’
Langside is only one of the means by which Diverse Abilities Plus supports families with profoundly disabled children. Smithers is a home where up to four children can stay for a few nights. Not only does this give a break to their parents – some of whom are getting up every two hours during the night, every night – it provides the children with new activities and improves their social skills. Shapes is the name for the service that the charity provides for children in their own home; again, the object is to give the parents a respite, but also to take the children out, perhaps to a youth club or just shopping, so that their horizons are widened.
Tensions can inevitably arise in families where parents are giving the lion’s share of their attention to a disabled child, and Diverse Abilities Plus is very aware of the need to embrace the whole family. Coping with CHAOS is a branch of the charity which supports siblings and parents as well as the child with disabilities. Started by two local mothers, it recognises that the long summer holidays are a particularly stressful time, and organises holiday ‘Play Opportunity’ sessions. For the disabled children to embrace fun activities and challenges independently, the charity runs another scheme called Project My Time, which provides holiday activities ranging from camping to speedboating.

Many of the activities, whether at Smithers, or as part of the Shapes scheme, improve social skills and interaction, as well as being fun and providing respite to parents and carers

But disabled children grow up to be disabled adults, a process which in the early days of the charity was, in the words of Mark Powell, ‘like falling off a cliff’. In 1974 Edward House was opened as a residential care home for adults. Thirty years on, the preference was for its potential residents to live as independently as possible in the community and the charity chose to close Edward House and to develop its Supported Living service, which enables adults with disabilities to live in their own homes, if necessary with 24-hour support from a care team. Often these bungalows are provided by Diverse Abilities Plus. Until he died two years ago at the age of 88, one of the bungalows was lived in by Hugh, who had spent 55 years in institutions. He called the bungalow ‘About Time’, and said that the best thing about it was that he could choose the colour of the walls himself.
Many of those in such housing will attend Barnabas, a day centre where up to thirty people can socialise and try new activities. And again, those responsible for the disabled person are not forgotten: support is provided as they work their way through the maze of benefits, administration and legal implications.

Phyllis Edwards (centre), the founder of Diverse Abilities Plus, was honoured with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the Wessex Charity Awards in October 2012

The charity, which employs some 370 people, including those on a part-time or casual basis, derives most of its income – currently £5.1 million a year – from local authority grants and through the government’s direct payment system. However, about £½ million has to be raised to provide many of the children’s school holiday projects, the charity’s advice service and specialist equipment, and to make adaptations to the Supported Living properties. As for all charities, the current economic climate is providing a challenge, but Fundraising Manager Helen Mortimer continues to be impressed by the generosity of the Dorset community. Local authority cuts have also affected revenue but Mark Powell does not see Diverse Abilities Plus as a political pressure group: ‘We just want to be good at what we do,’ he explains.
And what they do is to give a lifelong commitment. ‘Youngsters whom we are helping now are looking to us to be still here, and still helping them, in sixty years’ time,’ says Mark. ‘It’s a big responsibility.’

If you wish to donate to, or otherwise help the work of, Diverse Abilities Plus write to: Unit C, Acorn Business Park, Ling Road, Poole, Dorset BH12 4NZ, call 01202 718266, or visit

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