Market House / Disability Shetland: vital support for those in need

Play worker Shaun Harnett helps running the Easter break youth clubs held throughout the isles - Photo: Hans J Marter/ Shetland News
Play worker Shaun Harnett helps running the Easter break youth clubs held throughout the isles - Photo: Hans J Marter/ Shetland News

For 30 years, Disability Shetland has been improving the quality of life of adults and young people with disabilities and additional support needs in Shetland, writes Louise Thomason.

The charity began life in 1987, and has since evolved to its current status, a company limited by guarantee, with a team leader, club leaders, support workers, volunteers and a board of eight trustees.

It runs nearly 20 clubs for children and adults, in rural and island communities as well as in Lerwick. While these clubs provide important opportunities for group activities to the service users and respite for their families, Disability Shetland has also greatly improved the service it provides to individuals, entering fully into the inter-agency plans drawn up in conjunction with statutory services like Social Work, Education and NHS.

An example of this service to individuals is the Autism Transition Project, in which Disability Shetland workers provide direct weekly support to autistic young people who are facing the challenge of moving into the adult world: different examples of service to individuals are the provision of swimming lessons for children whose allergies prevent them from swimming with others, and the appointment of workers to support individual youngsters at mainstream youth clubs.

Board member Sandy Peterson has worked with the charity for seven years.

He said: “One of the things that disability does is to isolate folk, unless someone devises an activity that allows them to take part. That’s what we do.”

In recent years the charity has had a well-documented struggle to cope financially. While it receives money from Shetland Islands Council, the Shetland Charitable Trust and the Scottish Government, several applications to external funders, such as the Big Lottery Fund and Children in Need, have recently been unsuccessful, meaning that a large proportion of the organisation’s funds have come directly from local fundraising.

Last year, an incredible £50,000 was raised in donations from the Shetland public through the charity’s impressive fundraising efforts. While admirable, it is not something the board feels can sustain the charity into the future.

Boat trips are also part of the service provided by charity - Photo: Disability Shetland
Boat trips are also part of the service provided by charity – Photo: Disability Shetland

It’s clear that Disability Shetland is more than just a job to the trustees. Over the years, Sandy, 73, has personally undertaken several sponsored challenges, including a 40-mile hike to Ronas Hill. Currently, he and the other trustees are working many hours a week to keep the charity afloat.

Sandy said they understood this set-up is unsustainable but that it would “tide us over”.

However he was clear that the charity’s current situation is stark. He said: “If we were to get more cuts or weren’t to get anything from the major national funders from outside Shetland, we would really struggle to survive.”

Disability Shetland runs a wide range of clubs for over 100 adults and children, held throughout the isles; which have programmes of sports, arts and crafts, physical exercise, dance, games, yoga, an annual bowls tournament, a swimming gala, and boat trips.

The clubs are led by one or two paid club leaders, depending on the size of the club or activity, and they are assisted by a large force of volunteers.

All Disability Shetland’s staff and volunteers undergo training and PGV checks. Volunteering gives young people an opportunity to try working with folk with disabilities. Such experience can have a huge impact on their futures.

Lennon Reid is 14 and has been volunteering for a year. He said: “As a career I want to help disabled people, so I wanted to get some experience here. I enjoy it every day, it’s great. I like helping the people here and the fun activities we do. We do baking, play with toys, do arts and crafts and play games in the hall.”

As well as the weekly clubs, Disability Shetland runs a holiday club during Easter, summer and October school holidays, with activities such as swimming, soft play and days out to places like Michael’s Wood, the Sumburgh Lighthouse or Scalloway Castle.

Disability Shetland held an open day recently, to raise money for the charity, with games, teas, music and storytelling. Kirsten Sim was there with her step-son James, 15, who has attended clubs every week for almost 10 years.

Volunteers Katie Leask (left) and Megan Brennan with Ryan Brennan - Photo: Hans J Marter/ Shetland News
Volunteers Katie Leask (left) and Megan Brennan with Ryan Brennan – Photo: Hans J Marter/ Shetland News

Kirsten said: “He loves it. They make things, they go out for walks in the community; they go to the shop every week and get their snack: they bake: they do arts and crafts. It allows James to access youth services that he might not be able to in a mainstream setting, so it’s a huge benefit for him.

“He often says Saturday club makes him happy and he has had a good day, so much so he usually doesn’t want to leave!”

She added that for the family too, “It’s been a life-saver.”

Trustee Eleanor Robertson said the clubs give parents and families of folk with disabilities a much needed bit of respite.

She said: “We care for them for that valuable couple of hours in the morning that [the parents] can go and do something – maybe it’s with other siblings, maybe it’s just Tesco! But that to them is valuable time to have to themselves.”

With their current financial situation forcing difficult decisions, the charity has recently done a major review of its structure, including staffing. The result has been that the two co-ordinator posts have been replaced by a full-time team leader.

Despite the financial problems, there have been no cuts to services. Sandy said: “As far as I’m concerned we stand or fall on the level of service we provide. If we start cutting services what we’re doing is removing vital support from someone who really needs it.

“I think that a lot of the financial advisers would say “just cut your service to save money” – but I think that’s wrong. We sustain our service because we care for each and every child and adult and know how important our work is to them.”

Despite these cuts and challenges, the charity has new projects on the horizon with funding bids being made for extensions to existing services and new projects in areas where Disability Shetland wants to work with communities which lack support systems, and people who need personal help.

Disability Shetland is always looking for support, not only from donors, but also from folk willing to become volunteers or trustees. If you’d like to get involved, or would like any other information, Disability Shetland can be reached at Market House on 01595 743 752 or by email to