Gordon Richardson sitting relaxed in sunshine in front of the Vassall Centre

Interviewer: Aaron Creese
Interviewee: Gordon Richardson

Introductions

Aaron (00:00:00):
Hello, welcome to today’s interview. My name is Aaron Creese and I’m going to be interviewing Gordon. I’ll just welcome Gordon.

Gordon:
Hello, thank you for contacting me. Yes, I’m ready for this interview.

Why did you get involved in the Disabled people’s movement?

Aaron (00:00:16):
No problem. I have some questions to ask you. The first one is, what first made you get involved in the Disability people’s movement? What date was this?

Gordon:
I can tell you what got me involved. I can’t remember the date. It was a long time ago now. My neighbour was a lady called Sue McMullen who was very involved with Disability movement in Bristol. She was helping another Bristol trust set up a new project, and that project needed somebody with finance knowledge, and I’m a qualified chartered accountant. So unfortunately, as her neighbour, my arm got twisted and I became a trustee of the project. That then got me much more involved in Disability politics in Bristol.

Gordon:
A few years after starting with that project, I was made redundant and decided to actually retire at that time. Because I knew my life… or I’d been told that my life expectancy wasn’t that great. I thought, “Well, make use of the last few years doing something helpful for Disabled people.” At which point, I then started [inaudible 00:01:51], I now work here full-time, a charity trustee with a number of different charities. Ranging from general Disabilities in {placeBristol}, but also [inaudible 00:02:06] project charity in Bath, and the Polio Fellowship, which is a national charity. Probably, it all started in the mid-90s.

Bristol Walking Alliance

Aaron (00:02:20):
Question two. What is the Bristol Walking Alliance? Why did you join this?

Gordon:
Bristol Walking Alliance is a group of people who are putting pressure where possible on local and national authorities to make walking, or the pedestrians’ environment, rather better. They were looking for somebody to represent the Disabled community. As part of the remit of BDEF, we do look for representation on other bodies that will assist us. so I’m the BDEF representative on the Bristol Walking Alliance, so that they understand the particular needs of wheelchair users, people with low vision and so on, when designing new road schemes and in particular, the pedestrianized parts of any scheme. So the pavements, the crossings, the traffic lights, you name it. That’s the sort of thing we look at.

The Vassall Centre

Aaron (00:03:40):
Question three. How do you think the Vassall Centre over the years has helped people with learning Disability, physical Disabilities, and other conditions?

Gordon:
Right. I don’t know whether you know it, but I was one of the founding trustees of the Vassall Centre, so I was in from day one. The purpose of the project was to provide office space for charities working with Disabled people, so that the Disabled people themselves could run and operate their charities within that building. I.e., I’m a wheelchair user, so if I give the example of the wheelchair user, I needed to be able to get through all the doors. I need to be able to get to not only my desk, but anybody else’s desk in the office. I didn’t want to have to say, “Please could somebody come over and speak to me?” If I need to speak to them, I want to be able to go and speak to them at their desk. I needed to get at the filing. I needed to be able to make my own coffee or heat up my lunch, open and close the building at night.

Gordon:
I felt that everything I needed to do as an office worker in the building, I should be able to do, and the same for people with low vision. You have to be very careful about things like the choice of carpets, the choice of colours, where things were positioned so that they could be found easily, or not tripped over, as necessary. So, yeah, it was a big ask. Back in the 90s when we started the project, there were relatively few buildings that were really accessible, and those that were tended to be on the first, second, third floor, up in the attic, wherever, or down in the basement, and certainly not accessible to Disabled people.

Gordon:
The option of the Vassall Centre building, which was originally built as 12 wards, as an extension to the hospital out there. My brain goes, I tell you, at this time of night, but it was built for the American Army. It was part of their D-Day landing emergency, or for the injured and wounded. It was never in fact used for that purpose, but that’s why it was built. Subsequent to the war, it was used by the National Health for doing things like appliances or wheelchairs, and calipers, spinal jackets. You name it, you went out the Vassall Centre for them. It was also the Inland Revenue had a unit out there, the Ministry of Defence had a unit out there. But all of that, the Property Services Agency decided to sell the building, and sold the land for property development.

Gordon:
Another charity was already using four of the wards for their charity. They tried to buy the whole building, but couldn’t, but the other charity that I was involved with did have the funds. After much political negotiation, including having to get special permission from the House of Commons, we were allowed to buy the building at a reduced cost, which we then did. We were told it would cost anything up to three quarters of a million pounds to do the refurbishment necessary. By the time I retired having done more than my three score years and ten, we had spent over £5 million and there was another £7 million to go.

Gordon:
It was a lot more expensive trying to refurbish the place. It did to some extent work. I wouldn’t say it was wholly successful. A lot of charities still are based there, but we’ve had constant problems with charities wanting to reorganize their rented space in such a way that it wasn’t necessarily accessible to Disabled people. Even though at the time, they may not have had Disabled people on their staff, or on their volunteers or trustees, but we also think it was very important that they should have that access. Because if you didn’t have the access, then they couldn’t take up those positions.

Gordon:
So we had many arguments with our tenants over the years about this. One of my ideas was we introduced a variable rent rate, so that those charities that met all of our requests, and so on, have their rent reduced. If they didn’t fulfil them, that they started blocking up corridors and putting filing out of reach and so on, the rent went up. They didn’t like it, but I said, “It’s voluntary. You could pay eight pounds or whatever it was a square foot. If you decide to go against our wishes and our requirements, then it’s your decision whether you want to pay ten pounds and not eight pounds, not my decision.”

Gordon:
They didn’t like that, but apparently that concept has now been used quite widely in the commercial rental field, not just for Disability, but all sorts of things where the landlord has certain obligations or requirements that you might want to impose on your tenants. They say, “Right, meet our requirements, you get a reduced rent. Don’t meet our requirements, you pay a bit more.” That was actually quite a good success. By the mid-teens, 20-sort-of-12, 13, 14, it got to the point when we realized we couldn’t realistically raise the rest of the money needed to do, finalize, the refurbishment.

Gordon:
There was also becoming less of an actual need for it because so many more offices… the introduction of the Discrimination Act… Most new offices and a lot of the older offices were being converted, and were now accessible. So it was less vital. We had one excellent offer to buy the building from us, which we accepted. It’s now being run by a private organization, but very much along the lines we would like them to have done, but they have the money to finish the project off.

Gordon:
So that, although I was berated in the press on several occasions of being a totally incompetent and useless chair of the trust, most of our dissenters did agree a couple of years down the line that we’d made the right decision. Then the Vassall Centre moved over into a different field of work. After I’d left, at some point, they decided to close the charity, and hand the money over to another charity in Bristol. That was the beginning, middle and end of the Vassall Centre project. I think for 10, 15 years, it was working very well and was fulfilling the objects, and making it possible for Disabled people to run their own charities, always on the basis that if it’s for us, then we must run it.

A trustee for Designability

Aaron (00:12:09):
Right. My next question is around Designed Mobility. What is your role in advising-?

Gordon:
Right. Sorry, can I just correct one thing there?

Aaron Creese:
Yeah.

Gordon:
It’s not Designed Mobility. It’s Designability, is the name of the charity,

Aaron Creese:
Right. My apologies.

Gordon:
That’s all right.

Aaron Creese:
What is your role? “I’m in advising, I’m design, my [crosstalk 00:00:12:42]-“

Gordon:
I’m a trustee. That’s also a charity and I’m a trustee there. It was a charity set up, I think, just after the War. It was originally called the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, and it was designed, it was set up to produce equipment for the NHS or for Disabled people who needed specialist equipment that wasn’t available on the open market. It continues to do that and does a lot of research into new medical equipment, and provides all sorts of things that have been designed by them.

Gordon:
Unfortunately, in the early days they didn’t patent a lot of their things. If I say to you, these rising armchairs that you see in a lot of care homes and things, now in private homes, that they help you get up into a standing position, that was one of the designs that came out of the original trust. Our best known product is the Wizzybug, which is a little powered wheelchair for one to five-year-olds. That’s a very, very big part of our operations now, providing these powered chairs, because under five years, you don’t get one on the NHS, but there is a need for them.

Gordon:
We fulfil that need, but we’ve also done a lot of work in making homes more sustainable for people with dementia and people just getting elderly. Always surprised me, but in terms of numbers, our biggest seller by far… it’s something like 80,000 units… is a piece of equipment to help you wipe your bottom when you’ve been to the toilet. Not something you can put on a lot of public displays, it’s not nearly as sexy as the Wizzybug, but it’s actually a very big seller.

Gordon:
We made the time clocks, which are originally just small IT-type photo frames, but it just tells you what day it is and whether it’s morning or afternoon, and the time, because a lot of people with dementia have difficulty in doing that. Indeed, I find myself, now that I’m not working a nine-to-five job, it’s sometimes very difficult when you get up in the morning and think, “What day is it today?” I think I need to get one of those clocks so that I know, “Oh, it’s Wednesday today,” or “It’s Friday”.

Gordon:
It was so successful that the NHS then asked us to make some big versions of it. So we now do it in a 22-inch screen, which they use on their dementia wards. Again, for the patients, they can see what day it is and so on. I was asked to be a trustee because they’ve been doing some research on wheelchair design. Part of that project was actually run from the Vassall Centre and I was one of the guinea pigs for that.

Gordon:
In getting to know some of the people there, they said, “[inaudible 00:16:13], we’ve been running for like 40 or 50 years and never had a Disabled trustee. And as we’re working for Disabled people, it would be a good idea if we did.” So I joined them as a trustee nine years ago, or eight and a half years ago, but my term comes to an end at the end of this year. Yeah, so it’s a trustee running, helping run the business as it expands and so on.

Memorable and inspirational

Aaron (00:16:46):
The last question, what is your most memorable and inspirational thing about your work?

Gordon:
I think it’s getting things acknowledged as being good for Disabled people. When we got the Queen’s Award for charities, at the Vassall Centre, we were invited up to St James’s Palace to receive that. That was by far where you knew then that the hard work we’d all, trustees and the staff, had put into building that operation had been recognized nationally as something that was worthwhile.

Aaron Creese:
Thanks a lot, Gordon.

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