Arthur Birkby MBE is a trustee on the board of Voluntary Support North Surrey, and was the former founding chair of Runnymede Association for Voluntary Services and former Chairman of VSNS. He lives with multiple sclerosis.
When did you start volunteering?
I worked for Unisys in various technical, management and marketing roles but retired 25 years ago because of disability caused by MS.
The key thing my consultant told me then was: “Have a reason to get up in the morning.” So I went along to a volunteer fair in Woking and ended up volunteering with the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau) in Woking for five years and then continued volunteering in my local community.
You received an MBE for your volunteering work. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well, I probably received it because I’ve been volunteering a long time! I found that there was no voluntary sector organisation in Runnymede and was talked into starting a Volunteer Centre in Addlestone. This became RAVS (Runnymede Association of Voluntary Services) where I was the chair of trustees. The organisation grew and eventually merged with a similar organisation in Surrey Heath. Later on we began working in Spelthorne, and the organisation is now Voluntary Support North Surrey. I also got involved in starting up community transport in Runnymede and became an MBE in 2010.
Why do you believe volunteering is important for disabled people?
We know that volunteering is good for mental wellbeing. It’s about involvement and self-worth, about having a reason to get up in the morning.
It can also be a step up, for disabled people and others, to help people find employment. It does mean that the disabled person needs to be prepared to reach out to find organisations where they could offer their skills.
But it is also good for organisations. Many disabled people will have, or have had, a career or professional experience that could be useful to a charity. For example, having trustees with a wider breadth of experience gives organisations a much more rounded direction.
Could the voluntary sector be doing more to support disabled people to volunteer?
I would like to see a more coordinated approach by organisations to promoting opportunities to disabled people and disability groups. We need to increase awareness amongst organisations of how they can tailor and promote opportunities – perhaps in the same way that we have with our Time to Change project.
This year’s Disability History Month theme is wellbeing, health and disability, with a particular focus on the impact of, and recovery from, the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you think the pandemic has changed things for disabled people?
The way society and organisations now use IT and the way they operate has changed and is still changing. There is technology you can engage with even if you’re housebound. I’m now attending board meetings virtually and many organisations and business are adopting home working
Surrey Coalition for Disabled People now runs some wonderful virtual events for disabled people and it would be good to see other organisations finding imaginative ways to be inclusive.