Features: February 24th, 2006

Making Change Happen for Black and Minority Ethnic Disabled People

By Becca Singh

Four grassroots development projects were supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to generate practical learning about how to make change happen for black and minority ethnic disabled people. EQUALITIES aimed to increase the local voice of black and minority ethnic disabled people and carers. International Somali Community Trust employed direct advocacy and set up a user forum for Somali-speaking disabled people. People in Action supported ROOOTS, six African Caribbean people with learning difficulties, to deliver training to local service providers. Tassibee trained Pakistani Muslim women with experience of mental health difficulties to run self-help groups.

The research indicated high levels of unmet need, inappropriate and inadequate support services, and experience of discrimination in mainstream service provision and sometimes within people’s own communities.

Although the projects were different in aims, approach, organisational history and capacity, and in the communities they served, several common lessons emerged over the twelve-month funding period.

Exploring identities and life stories

All four projects invested time in creating safe spaces for people to explore their own identities, share memories and experiences, and examine the effects of discrimination and prejudice in their lives. This may sound like a ‘soft’ approach to improving the life chances of disadvantaged and isolated people. But it proved highly effective in bringing about real changes for those involved, especially through building self-confidence and increasing awareness of their rights.

The ROOOTS group, for example, spent considerable time in exploring identities, heritage and discrimination. This proved instrumental in helping the individual members to come together as a strong team. It also enabled them to use their experiences when training service providers.

Fusing different cultures

Three of the projects successfully drew together techniques, histories and experiences from different cultures. These were fused with strong traditions of faith and heritage, and developed according to the wishes and interests of those involved.

In the Tassibee project, women in the self-help groups took the arts activities introduced at sessions and developed them into their own projects. For instance, a simple role-playing exercise turned into a public performance for the Eid festival. This drew in a large audience and was greatly enjoyed. The co-ordinators were worried about how the play would be received, but were committed to empowering the women to take the lead.

For ISCOM, the strong Somali tradition of passing on wisdom, advice and experience through story-telling, poems and songs shaped the approach to user involvement. The project also combined new ideas of holding open discussions cutting across gender and generation, while using existing separate spaces (such as a women’s group) to talk about disability.

Using different arts media

Different arts media were used to powerful effect in developing the skills, knowledge and awareness of individuals and organisations. Variety was important, as different media and activities appealed to different participants. ROOOTS initially planned to focus on ‘forum theatre’, but found it more helpful to use a mixture of theatre, music, drumming, batik, information technology (IT), film and poetry.


Tassibee took considerable care to use appropriate language, both in promoting the project and throughout training and self-help sessions. The project also sought to challenge language inequality by delivering the training in two classes: bilingual (Punjabi and English) and just English. Both classes had co-trainers, one Pakistani Muslim woman and one white English non-Muslim woman. It was important for women to see languages as being of equal value. The project validated participants’ first language, which gave them confidence to use their limited second language (for some, Punjabi and English).

Funding change

All four projects had short-term funding contracts (twelve months, ?000-?000 per project). Short-term projects can change the lives of individuals, but changing attitudes and services in ways that affect larger numbers of people takes more time and resources. Such work also needs space to evolve, and several factors – including resistance to change – could not easily be factored into the original project proposals. EQUALITIES, for instance, met with more difficulties and resistance than could have been anticipated in the original proposal. Flexible funding enabled the project to try out different ways of achieving its aims. During the project, EQUALITIES also broadened its remit to include carers, in response to expressed unmet needs from local people.

The projects welcomed the relative flexibility of the funding, but the frustrations and additional burdens placed on them by short-term funding were all too apparent. Such difficulties are common across the voluntary sector, but may be particularly acute for organisations led by or working with black and minority ethnic disabled people, where people’s identities, support needs and experiences of discrimination can be especially complex.

Networking locally and beyond

ROOOTS specifically wanted to increase its visibility in the local community by using local facilities (an internet caf? or caterer) for the project. This helped to challenge local assumptions within the community about people with learning difficulties. Team members also benefited from attending national events and learning from other local groups with shared interests.

All four projects intended to network with others, but two of them found this hard to sustain. For example, the urgent needs of Somali disabled people and carers known to ISCOM’s project worker understandably took priority over networking with disability and user-led groups.


The study findings gave rise to some suggestions for projects:

  • Involve disabled people from the outset and throughout, and be ready to change plans and pace.
  • Recognise the importance of multiple identities that straddle ‘tick boxes’ of ethnicity, heritage, disability, mental health, gender, faith, age, generation, class, family and citizenship status.
  • Recognise the impact of isolation and multiple discrimination experienced by many black and minority ethnic disabled people. Disability, equality and race equality need to be addressed alongside other dimensions.
  • Create safe spaces to share memories and explore identities and heritage – this can be very powerful.
  • Fuse different ideas and techniques, drawing on longstanding cultural traditions as well as new arts and IT media.
  • Use local opportunities to bring about wider change where possible.
  • Build in time and a budget for networking locally, regionally and nationally.

The full report provides further suggestions and checklists for funders and others.

About the project

Becca Singh is a freelance researcher and consultant on diversity and equality. She used interviews, participatory observation and documentary analysis to draw out themes and lessons from the four projects. An event was held to bring the projects together to test out initial findings and identify further learning.

For further information

The full report, Improving support for black disabled people: Lessons from community organisations on making change happen by Becca Singh, is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (ISBN 1 85935 390 8, price ?5).