Join Our Club: Young People With Disabilities Need Services That Support Inclusion


francesca dean 2

I’m a 23-year-old young person who enjoys an active and event-packed lifestyle. I’ve auditioned for X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice and it’s not unheard of to see me zip wiring through the air or abseiling.

What may surprise you is that I need to use a wheelchair due to Cerebral Palsy. Born prematurely at 26 weeks and weighing a tiny 2lbs 8oz, the condition developed as a result of my brain not receiving enough oxygen at birth.

¬†This can mean that life sometimes proves challenging, but I’m very lucky to have support from my fantastic family.

I have also made some amazing friends whilst at my local youth centre, Blackburn Youth Zone.It’s this experience that has made me passionate about campaigning for services that promote inclusion for young people. Here’s why…

Meeting people

Not many of my friends would believe it now but I used to be very quiet and shy. I wasn’t always as confident and self-assured as I am today. Meeting people with such varied backgrounds and life experience changed this.

I didn’t feel that I had enough support at college and was told that I would struggle to complete my course there.

This made me feel hopeless, lost and dejected but I decided that I wasn’t going to mope around. I needed to push myself to try something different.

It was at this crossroads in my life when I attended a youth centre for the first time.

Blackburn Youth Zone has helped me to combat loneliness and gain confidence. I’ve tried so many new activities including drama classes delivered by Action Factory Community Arts, and they have sports coaching from Blackburn Rovers FC Community Trust too.

The inclusive environment was key to feeling comfortable and confident trying new things and making new friends. Everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from, can hang out, learn new skills and get involved. You become friends with people who you’d never normally even get the chance to talk to.

This encourages a real sense of community and gives members of the Youth Zone a physical place of belonging that can be hard to come by in the age of social media. It allows you to have ‘real’ conversations and friendships.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like to use Youtube and also Twitter to tweet about things I’m passionate about (including meeting my two heroes Reggie Yates and Craig David) but it just isn’t the same.

Support and independence

Something that also can’t be underestimated is how services for young people give parents a break, especially ones like mine.

I know how hard it can be for them sometimes due to my disability and complex needs, just as it can be for other care givers. The Youth Zone plays a vital role in providing a cost-effective way for them to have some down time.

The biggest impact it’s had is by giving me more independence. Through encouragement from the staff, I applied for a part-time receptionist role at Blackburn Youth Zone. I didn’t think I would get it as I was up against several candidates but I did and I can’t wait to start!

It made me sad to hear Scope’s recent research found that not everyone with a disability has this experience when looking for employment. I feel very fortunate that I’ve found an employer that promotes inclusivity and independence.

Inclusive access

All of this is why I’m passionate about OnSide Youth Zones, the national charity behind Blackburn Youth Zone.

My life has completely changed for the better since joining. I was at a real low point two years ago and I’m now loving every minute.

Since 2008 the charity has helped establish a network of ten Youth Zones across the country and many more are being planned as I write. They’re now taking their concept in to the Capital, with three agreed in London and more set to be announced in other areas.

I passionately believe that we should have one of these in every town and city in the UK because of how much of an impact they can have.

Funding will always be an issue but if councils, businesses and communities work together like they do to deliver Youth Zones, then hopefully young people of all backgrounds will be able to come together and benefit from an inclusive environment that helps them make the most of their lives.