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How trailblazing volunteer Denise is helping us better serve disabled children

Wednesday 07 April 2021
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When Denise approached Action for Children about her wish to volunteer, it was the start of an extraordinary story that would make an impact right across the UK

"From the age of five it’s been about what I can’t do, not what I can do," remembers Denise Withers, now 60.

Denise has cerebral palsy and a speech impairment. She's faced communication challenges her whole life.

Her lived experience made Denise passionate about inclusion and empowering people to achieve their potential. She says, "I got involved with Action for Children because I wanted to make people think about how to communicate and help them understand the challenges for someone like me."

Denise first became involved with Action for Children through the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership, a group of professionals and service users working to improve social work services. She became passionate about Action for Children and how to make its services more accessible and inclusive for children and young people who have a disability.

Desire to make a difference

In 2018, Denise approached Action for Children about her wish to volunteer with us. While there weren’t any vacancies at the time, our local team in Northern Ireland began shaping a role to suit her skills and interests. They also had to consider the need to make reasonable adjustments for her disability.

Little did the team know, this challenge would prepare them brilliantly for the lessons that Denise would help teach all Action for Children staff across the four Nations.

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Denise's contribution will touch the lives of the children and young people we work with UK-wide

Communicating in a way that includes everyone

Just a year into her volunteering role with Action for Children, Denise began working with our Strategic People Partner in Northern Ireland, Jane Hamilton.

Together they’ve developed an organisation-wide e-learning programme allowing people to learn more about how to communicate in a way that is mindful of the different requirements, preferences and capabilities of those around them.

Jane remembers their first meeting: “My first impression of Denise was of a tiny figure in an electric wheelchair... I soon realised that her diminutive appearance disguises a big personality.”

The Inclusive Communication E-learning programme was launched 2020, led by the trailblazing Denise.

The project is a great example of co-production and collaboration. It has involved a wide range of people including Action for Children staff, young people who have benefited from our services and other volunteers.

My first impression of Denise was of a tiny figure in an electric wheelchair... I soon realised that her diminutive appearance disguises a big personality.

Jane Hamilton, Strategic People Partner for Northern Ireland

By drawing on her own experience, Denise has created a resource that will help people to understand how to approach, interact with, understand, and empathise with who they meet.

From how best to address a person, to how to communicate with people without speech capabilities, the course gives true insight into how best to deal with situations people may previously have shied away from as 'awkward'.

Inclusion is very important because it’s about how to think about everyone. You don’t walk away, you keep going, you don’t give up.

Denise

Ultimately, Denise’s contribution to Action for Children will help us be a more inclusive, effective organisation for the vulnerable children and families that need us. For that, we are truly grateful.

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