New Disability Horizons contributor, John Russell, shares with us the story of how, and why, he created a charity called the Oyster Project, based in Lewes, East Sussex, UK to help disabled people make the most of the facilities in their local community.
After a life of being a very active, sporty person, if anyone had told me that I would one day be a wheelchair user I wouldn’t have believed it! But 20 years after a cycling accident which should have signed me off, and 12 years after I first got a chair, here I still am wheeling about and getting on with stuff. By stuff I mean the charity I set up. It’s called the Oyster Project, as in the “World is Your Oyster” and it’s based in Lewes, East Sussex, UK. It’s a different sort of disability charity as not only is it founded by people with disabilities it’s also run by them. In fact, 80 per cent of the trustee directors are members and they are the ones who make the decisions.
We also operate in a slightly different way to most organisations; we start with an individual and their interests and enthusiasms and build from there. In this way we have set up and run a town-wide Wi-Fi network called Lewes Community Internet, a weekly community cafe open to the public and an internet radio station webcasting to the world.
We run art classes, drama groups, cooking clubs, gardening groups, theatre visits, wheels ‘n walks, DJ training, Oral History groups, podcasting, camping, Karaoke clubs, Club Nights, computer training, IT support and more!
People are amazed at how much we do but the secret is simple, we empower our people, we trust our people, we train our people, we give our people support and we give our people responsibility. The key word, though, is “appropriate”. We don’t try and fit our people into things – that way is doomed to failure. Instead we create things around our people who then spread their enthusiasm and endeavour to others. If it all sounds too hippy for some then that’s their loss! We know it works and we know it works in the interests of our members and the community.
We don’t charge for membership or activities. Our view is that if someone cannot attend, say, an art group because £2.50 is beyond their budget then we have completely missed the point and failed. It’s like everything has been reduced to small amounts of money. We are about people, co-operation, collaboration, friendship, companionship, endeavour, activity and engagement; let’s sort the finances out after we have built those things. The remarkable thing is this is how it happens, we run with things as a try out and, before we know it, a new group is up and running and everyone is having fun.
Fun is also a key component of our work. We are working together, not for each other as carers so it has to be fun.
Also central to what we do is the attitude of inviting the community into what we do. We don’t want to be isolated. We are part of the mainstream so let’s think like mainstream and act like mainstream. The wonderful thing is that when the public come to the cafe they may at first think this is rather strange to find so many wheelchairs, etc but within minutes they are chatting and having a nice lunch. We get comments from tourists, for example, like “it was so friendly, the food was so good. We loved it” and our club nights are popular with non-members, there’s good music and everyone dances!
Disability can be isolating, so our family camps (now known as OysterFest) are very popular. It’s a great chance to get some fresh air, do some art, visit the Yurt of Wellbeing, bake pizzas and bread in a field oven, listen to live bands, eat and drink, all in the company of other members, friends, children, teenagers and dogs – a real tribal experience with lots of laughs.
We’ve had support from our Town Council, local organisations and some funding from the Lottery and Youth Bank but we also raise a large proportion of funds ourselves. That’s getting increasingly hard in the present climate but we know what we are doing is needed, it’s worthwhile and all the time we can do ‘stuff’ we will, that’s a promise.
If you are interested in what we are doing check out our the Oyster Project (due for a revamp soon) and our web based ‘radio station’ Radio Lewes. Our Wi-Fi signal is available in Lewes. If you are interested in this sort of technology, visit the website.
By John Russell