Disabled Borderers feel“betrayed” as council set to close their centre

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Members and carers at the Borders’ only centre for the physically disabled say they’ve been betrayed by a decision by Scottish Borders Council to close The Ability Centre in Galashiels.

Bob Anderson, a disabled resident of Selkirk, told TheSouthern: “The social work department has continually denied it would close the centre, and now it has gone back on its word.”

“There is a sense of betrayal,” the centre’s chairman Bill Calder added: “Having been repeatedly reassured for two years that there was no threat to the centre, and having taken part in an options appraisal group that gave the centre a future, members feel senior managers in the social work department have acted in bad faith, and have broken their word by rejecting these options in favour of closure.”

Isobel Ness, the centre’s vice chair, agreed: “We were assured it wouldn’t close, but it’s just been a bare-faced lie, because it is closing. There’s no way now it’s not going to close. This is a money-saving exercise, but they’re not thinking about people’s lives.”

The Ability Centre, which is attached to the Focus Community Centre in Galashiels, was custom made in 1993 for people with physical disabilities.

Currently, SBC’s social work department employs seven staff (two full time and five part- time) to run the support service for approximately 20 disabled people (15 who attend the centre and five who are supported in the community). The aim is to offer social contact to members who would otherwise be socially isolated, and to encourage members to relearn old skills they have lost, learn new skills and make links in the wider community.

“From the beginning the Ability Centre was a groundbreaking concept with disabled people running as much of the service as possible,” writes Mr Calder, “including playing an active role in the management committee, which raises funds and helps ensure the centre meets the needs of members and carers.”

Carole Douglas, 53, lives alone in Selkirk, housebound with mobility and heart problems.

She told us: “The centre is a place where you don’t feel disabled. My life before the centre was non-existent: carers put clothes on me, sat me in a chair, and that was it. Now the social work department is again condemning me to be isolated in my own home 24:7.

“We were planning a party to celebrate the centre’s 20th anniversary in March, but now we don’t even know if it’ll be open in March. It’ll be a very sad day for members, and the staff who’ve worked so hard to help us.”

Isobel Ness, who lives in Darnick with her carer husband Charlie, agreed: “The staff are so caring – what will happen to them?”

The centre changed Isobel’s life eight years ago, when she became paraplegic after a heart transplant. “I just wanted to turn my face to the wall. I didn’t want to see anybody, or go anywhere,” she said. “My GP referred me to the centre. Now it’s a real anchor for me.

“As a member I enjoy the company of others with like degrees of disability. The centre offers help with current difficulties and helps me relearn skills I have lost. My husband, who is my full-time carer, will lose the very valuable 15 to 18 hours he has to get on with ordinary tasks around the house and garden.”

Mr Calder added: “The members see the centre as a lifeline, helping them to get out of the house to meet other people, learn new skills, and give their carers a much needed break.”

The centre provides a kitchen and dining room built for wheelchairs, a quiet room for members to talk problems through with their assigned carers, a studio for arts and crafts, and a lounge for blethering, listening to music, and exercises to get their muscles moving. “The carers there helped me to walk with two sticks – before that I could hardly walk,” said Carole. “I’ve learnt how to cook on my own, and done a computer and receptionist course.”

The centre also organises activities, such as trips to the theatre, or even simply going out for a meal.

“We’re picking up new things – it’s just great,” added Isobel, who worked as a personnel officer at the BGH before her disability. “The centre gives Charlie and I something to discuss, rather than just four walls. It’ll be a tragic loss for us, but there are people in a worse position, who live alone and would have no company.”

“I’m frightened if they close the centre my life will go back to the way it was: sitting in my reclining chair, not going out,” added Carole. “All I’ll see is my carer four times a day. I’ve made a lot of friends through the centre, but they’ll disappear because we won’t be able to see each other. It’s really heartbreaking. I hope people in the Borders see how important it is to keep the centre open.”

Describing efforts to save the centre, Mr Calder said: “It is no secret that the future of the centre has been under consideration. For the past year the committee has been represented on a group appointed by the social work department to conduct an options appraisal and this group came up with six options all of which would have guaranteed the future of the centre.”

And he claimed: “When presented with these options, senior managers in the department rejected all six and, despite the fact the centre is vibrant, popular and growing in numbers, they opted for closure.

“The alternative model favoured by social work managers is to remove staff from the centre, and send them out to visit disabled people in their own homes. They also hope to persuade a voluntary organisation, such as the WRVS or Red Cross, to run a social centre for three days per week.

“However, the lack of transport and the fact that the social centre will not be able to cater for ‘social care needs’ means most physically disabled people, including many of those who currently attend the Ability Centre, will be unable to attend the new centre.”

“They’re proposing a drop-in centre run by volunteers, but I couldn’t go,” Isobel added: “I’d have to get a taxi both ways, and we couldn’t afford that. I’m in a wheelchair, so I couldn’t get on a bus even if there was one. I’m stuck in Darnick, where there isn’t even a cafe or a shop.”

“If you need any personal care, like moving and handling, you’ll now have to bring and pay someone to come with you,” said Carole, who is currently taken twice weekly to the Ability Centre by its minibus. “I can’t afford taxis or public transport. I haven’t got the money. I live on just £125 a week,” she said.

“Our committee is very concerned about the serious impact these changes will have on our members,” Bill Calder added. “Closing the centre, sending staff out in their cars to pay brief visits to disabled people and opening a centre not geared to meeting the needs of physically disabled people will increase social isolation, and in our view will be a very poor use of tax-payers money.”

Committee secretary Rob Nicholson said: “It is very disappointing that SBC has decided to effectively close the centre, which is the only one of its kind in the Borders, in favour of disabled people being visited in their home, by a skeletal staff team supplemented by a social centre which, if such a group can be found, is to be run by a voluntary organisation”.

Carer Rosalind Moon of Galashiels explained how the impact of the changes will also be felt by carers: “From a family carer’s point of view, a visit to a physically-disabled person by community workers, who may be unable to meet personal care needs, is not an adequate substitute for a few hours of respite. From the disabled person’s point of view, the visit is no substitute for a few hours out of the house, and an opportunity to participate in meaningful activities with other people”

In a statement, Scottish Borders Council insisted all options were still on the table.

“The Department can confirm that a number of proposals have been considered to redesign the service at the Ability Centre. However, no decisions have yet been made and a report will be presented at the next meeting of the Social Work and Housing Committee early in the New Year.