Equal Lives is a user-led charity, providing services and support for disabled people facing barriers to independence. Their core activities include an Information, Advice and Advocacy service, Direct Payment service, Living Well Workers (social prescribing) and a Business Development Team, whose campaign work is led by the experiences and views of the members. Through these they aim to make disabled people’s voices heard at decision-making levels and influence policy decisions, as well as support them through practical advice e.g. personal budget support, welfare rights, independent living and mental health advocacy and appeals representation. Around 4,000 people benefit from their services, with approximately 250 of these being registered members.

When the UK first went into lockdown 12 months ago, Equal Lives had to adapt the way in which they run and deliver their services. Society as we knew it changed almost overnight, but for the people supported by Equal Lives, the impact of shielding and self-isolation on mental health and their ability to continue to do the basic in life, was felt acutely.

A grant enabled the charity to employ a Covid-19 Response Officer for 6 months who has advised, encouraged and befriended people, to manage misconceptions, alleviate worries about the virus and feelings of isolation and loneliness. A ‘chat to us’ service offered video calls, phone calls and social media/ text messaging and this welfare support has been particularly beneficial for the many members who have spent long periods shielding. The officer developed knowledge of the support available in Norfolk, particularly how organisations have adapted their packages in light of the pandemic, to relay to members and signpost them where specific assistance or support may be required.

The other side of their role has been to communicate with members and inform the charity’s campaigning work in response to Covid-19. It is important members understand how the pandemic and guidance affects them, to help them to make informed choices, and that their rights are upheld. Ensuring disabled people’s voices are heard has been especially important in an evolving situation with issues regarding health, employment and access to welfare. This work not only supported the charity’s members, but also other’s experiencing barriers beyond Norfolk. One example being when the Officer resolved an issue raised about the lack of an audio link on the government website, to improve accessibility.

While the role of the Covid-19 Officer has recently come to an end, Covid-19 has not. Equal Lives are planning to continue some aspects of the work within their existing team, with members and volunteers taking the lead on others, and providing peer support. This grant also provided the charity with important evidence to use when applying to other funders, and a result they were able to recreate this project in Suffolk.

One service user contacted Equal Lives as he was having difficulties when he needed to visit places and was not wearing a face covering. He is exempt and does have a letter from his GP to support this. After speaking to him, it transpired that this was a frequent challenge when out and about on the buses, library, supermarkets and shopping centres.

The Officer began by contacting all the places and highlighting the issues. The library now offers a face mask exemption card, the bus company now encourages people to contact them if they are having difficulties when on their journey, one supermarket made their security guards aware that some people are exempt and also made adjustments to their access/queuing area for those with visual impairments. The shopping centre has a robust sticker recognition system in place and offer lanyards and most successfully, one public building now has a policy in place for people who cannot wear masks and Equal Lives are recognised on that policy as helping to shape it.

The client also accessed the ‘chat to us’ service and has said this it was a lifeline to be able to speak with somebody and raise issues as they came up. When the world closed, his world became even smaller, this support meant he felt less isolated and knew somebody cared.