As 2020 draws to a close, The Disabilities Trust's CEO, Irene Sobowale, reflects on our 40th anniversary year. She talks about resilience in the pandemic, the year's highlights and challenges, and plans for 2021.

"Keeping motivated during the Covid-19 pandemic has been important for Toni who has multiple sclerosis. Taking part in online exercise classes at Jane Percy House – our residential centre for physically disabled people in Cramlington, Northumberland – is helping her to stay positive and meet new people.

'For me, being able to exercise online to ease my anxiety and meet new people but stay safe at the same time and be part of an able-bodied group is massive,’ says Toni. ‘Being a part of these classes means everything to me.’

Toni is one of hundreds of people we support across the UK who have shown incredible resilience during this challenging year. Whether it's taking part in virtual exercise classes or socially distanced music sessions, we've provided opportunities for the people who use our services to connect with others. This has helped them to look after their own wellbeing, with the support of our staff.

Celebrating the past, present and future

This year has brought unprecedented challenges for The Disabilities Trust. But it's also been one of celebration as we marked the organisation's 40th anniversary. It's been fantastic to read stories reflecting on the charity's past, present and future. These include the A to Z history series, which looked at the organisation's 40-year journey to improve the lives of thousands of disabled people.

A personal highlight for me was reading an article from Matt, who opened up about his brain injury and recovery at Graham Anderson House. I am proud of our longstanding staff member Carol Pattenden, who reflected on the evolution of the organisation she considers to be her second family. Co-founder, and former trustee, Stephen Love also inspired me with his determination 40 years ago to improve the lives of disabled people.

The Disabilities Trust has achieved a lot in 40 years. From building six bungalows for 35 people in Sussex, to broadening our reach and becoming a national charity supporting over 600 people a year.

This year, we have:

  • supported over 600 people with an acquired brain injury, autism, and learning or physical disabilities.
  • welcomed 291 people to our services, with 276 – 35% of those we supported – being discharged. Many moved on to more independent living.
  • been rated as “good” or “outstanding” by the Care Quality Commission for 91% of our services in England. We achieved an outstanding rating for two more services, Jane Percy House, where Toni lives, and The Woodmill. Our services in Scotland and Wales are equally well-regarded by regulators in those areas.
  • improved our financial position by reducing overheads, becoming more efficient and reinvesting in our staff. This includes reviewing and making sure our care and support packages are better meeting the needs of the people we support.
  • developed new technology. For example, at the start of the pandemic, we put new equipment in place to deliver clinical assessments virtually. This made sure we could continue providing rehabilitation and support to the people who use our services.
  • provided prisoners with brain injuries at HMP Cardiff with one-to-one support through The Disabilities Trust's Foundation's Brain Injury Linkworker Service.
  • continued to respond to people's needs through our clinical services. For example, our brain injury work saw seven in 10 people needing less supervision on discharge and almost three in five (58%) improving their participation in social activities.

Protecting the people we support

This year has been memorable for another reason. Like other organisations in our sector, The Disabilities Trust has had to navigate unfamiliar territory because of the pandemic. This wouldn't have been possible without the commitment and dedication of our staff.

As we enter 2021, our staff continue to adapt and deliver high-quality rehabilitation, care and support. It isn't easy to do this under such difficult circumstances, but our teams continue to show great strength, courage and creativeness, and our priority is to continue to keep the people we support and our staff safe during this difficult time.

Looking ahead

Despite the uncertainties that lie ahead, The Disabilities Trust is optimistic. We are building on 40 years of experience and supporting thousands of disabled people to live as independently as possible. We will continue to work hard to achieve the aims and objectives set out in our current five-year plan. This was launched in 2017 to ensure the charity remains relevant, adaptable and sustainable for another 40 years.

In 2021, we will develop a new organisational strategy to make sure the people who use our services remain at the core of our work and to review how we position ourselves externally.

Next year, we will:

  • support the people who use our services across the UK to have a voice in decision making through regional forums. This provides an opportunity for them to shape the organisation and have a say on issues affecting disabled people.
  • develop our website and the way we engage with people to:

    - position The Disabilities Trust as the go-to provider for people with an acquired brain injury, autism, or learning and physical disabilities more boldly raise awareness of our high-quality services and person-centred approach

    - provide accessible, relevant information to commissioners and families

  • maintain and develop high-quality, well-located services. For example, the extension of Eastfields in Glasgow will open in early 2021, doubling occupancy. In March, Mill Street, our new supported living accommodation, will open in Liverpool. We will also continue the £2.5 million refurbishment of our brain injury assessment and rehabilitation centre, Daniel Yorath House in Leeds during 2021.

Evolving for another 40 years

The Disabilities Trust has had an incredible journey over the last 40 years. This is thanks to the commitment and dedication of staff, trustees and supporters, both past and present. Without them we wouldn't be celebrating our 40th anniversary or looking ahead to the next 40 years. I am proud to lead The Disabilities Trust into 2021 and look forward to seeing how the organisation continues to evolve."

Find out more about the work of The Disabilities Trust in our 2019-2020 annual report and brain injury outcomes report.