Vici Richardson was recently appointed as our new CEO. Having worked at Disability North since 2010, she was the perfect candidate to head up our charity. We had a chat with her about her new role…

Tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of Disability North

I started working at Disability North in 2010 working in the Direct Payment Support Team. I’d been travelling up and down the UK working for a National Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Charity, and I just wanted to be in one place. My children were quite young at the time, so I started to look locally.

I was really interested in the idea of Direct Payments. I’d already heard about them, as my son has a disability, and he was coming to an age where we were looking for some support for him. For ten years I worked within the team, supporting disabled people in the Newcastle area who had Direct Payments, and their families too.

My role then changed in 2020. The Direct Payment Support contract was awarded to a national organisation. Instead of transferring to the new organisation, I took on the post of Personalisation and Community Care Manager and set-up what is now known as the Personalisation and Community Care team. We began to offer our personalised support to Direct Payment employers across the North East, North Yorkshire and York. I also began to offer an independent community care advice service.

It could have been a huge negative for the organisation. But we turned it around. I was really nervous at first, as we weren’t sure how it would work out. But it just took off . There were people who had worked with us for a long time who didn’t want to move to work with another organisation, and they continued to work with us, which was great. We also supported new employers from across the North East

It was incredible how our services (and our team) grew. No-one could have predicted it. We now have 5 members on the team 4 of whom all have lived experience of social care. Something else we couldn’t have predicted was the Covid pandemic, which happened just as we were launching. But I don’t think community care advice had ever been anymore needed. Throughout that we were dealing with completely new things, like PPE, vaccines, all of that. We hit the ground running

It’s been a really good two years, so when Victoria handed in her notice, it seemed like a natural progression for me to apply. I really believe in everything we do as an organisation, otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. Twelve years down the line, I’m still so passionate about inclusion, independence choice and control.  I have seen the difference it can make through the people I have supported and also in my son’s life who is now 20. .

What are you most looking forward to this year?

It’s not easy working in this sector at the minute but I am looking forward to using the skills used in previous roles and leading the charity. I’m also looking forward to working together with our committed board of trustees and amazing staff team.  I’m excited about the challenge (although I’m nervous!). I’m looking forward to hearing from the people we support and- together with the whole staff team- developing what we do and seeing where it goes. There are some amazing opportunities out there for us to ensure disabled people have a voice and opportunities for coproduction the Integrated Care Partnership System.  I am also looking forward to building on our existing networks and expanding the work that we do.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing you?

As a charity, there’s always the pressure of funding- there’s no bottomless pit of money!

 We can’t get past the cost of living crisis. That’s really affecting the people that we support and the community that we serve. Energy bills are going through the roof and it’s going to be difficult. I think we need to make sure that as an organisation we’re resilient, so that we can support people emotionally. The well-being of our staff is also crucial when we’re having difficult conversations every day.

We can’t fix everything- we can give the advice, but some of these issues we can’t fix and that can be hard. But sometimes people just need someone to listen to them. That’s one of the benefits of being a user-led organisation.

Finally, for me, I will miss working so closely with Direct Payments. Consistency is very important for our clients, so there will be a period of transition. But it isn’t just about consistency. I need to keep my ear to the ground and still be involved at all levels, so that I know and understand issues and challenges as they happen.

What do you hope for the charity?

Over the last few years we have done a lot of policy influencing work. One advantage of the pandemic was it opened up new networks and new ways of working and feeding into policy. I would like to see these partnerships continue, ensuring the voices of disabled people are heard at local and national level and we can inform policy. We have an excellent service around welfare benefits advice and Direct Payment support, as well as our Payroll Service- I want that to continue to develop and meet the needs of the people we serve. It would be good if we can build more capacity in our community care advice work as well. That’s really important.

If I had a magic wand I would love to do more with the Dene Centre (where we’re based). It would be lovely to have a service like a community cafe, training rooms, and offer peer support for people using Direct Payments particularly. It would be great to have a drop-in service. I would love to build on our successful PA training and look at a PA network to support PAs and increase the availability of the workforce.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: we will continue to ensure disabled people, older adults and their families are at the heart of the support that we provide.