The graduate working to make Salford more accessible
Having a degenerative visual impairment himself, and being an avid gym goer, Ben Andrews was always aware of the barriers disabled people might face in keeping active.
Some of Ben’s family members also have the same condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa – a condition which progresses with age – but thanks to their strong family support network, were all able to keep active. Ben wanted to replicate this network for others.
He started volunteering around Salford, delivering healthy lifestyle sessions and assessing what was available for disabled people to keep active. This led to him deciding to pursue a career in this area. Conscious that none of the available employment opportunities he’d come across so far felt like the right fit, Ben wanted to forge his own path.
Ben said: “Back then, I didn’t have the awareness of how to draw down funding, or any major experience in report writing. I wasn’t too sure where to go with the idea.”
University was never part of Ben’s life plan, but in 2012 he approached the University of Salford on an open day to explain his aspirations. He spoke to Dr Anna Robins and Dr Paul Sindall, who said he would be ideal for the University’s Exercise and Health Science programme (now known as Nutrition and Exercise as Medicine).
Unfortunately, Ben didn’t have the 112 UCAS points needed to get onto the course. Anna and Paul have alternative routes – Accredited Prior Learning – which allowed them to set him an assignment, to be able to admit him to the course.
So, Ben worked hard, doing as much research as he could to complete the assignment and gain entry to the degree programme.
“I used my time on the degree to explore the field I wanted to go into, from the psychological benefits of exercise for wheelchair users, to exercise versus medication for disabled populations.” Ben explained.
During his second year at the University, Ben got a job as a health trainer at Unlimited Potential, a Salford-based social enterprise specialising in social innovation. This gave him experience working on the ground with people in Salford.
The last assignment on Ben’s degree course was a dissertation. He went to then lecturer and now Associate Dean Academic, Dr Paul Wilson, to help develop an idea.
Paul said: “Ben’s idea didn’t fit the normal structure that you would follow when undertaking a dissertation, but I thought it was worth investigating. On this basis, a business plan was used to propose how Ben could produce some activities for people in the local community and assess the effectiveness. He produced an excellent piece of work which helped him to achieve an overall first-class honour.”
Since this time, Paul has helped Ben to develop his business model, and has gone on to become a Board member of Ben’s company, Beyond Empower.
After graduating, Ben needed to find funding to pursue his work. NHS Salford Clinical Commissioning Group and Salford CVS’s Innovation funds, which help to pilot new ideas, were the right fit but Ben was unable to apply as he wasn’t registered as a company.
So, Unlimited Potential agreed to incubate Ben and his work, enabling him to submit his funding proposals through them.
In 2015, Ben delivered the first Empower You pilot with the support of NHS Salford CCG and Salford CVS. It enabled him to run small sessions in Broughton, working with disabled people. The commissioners liked the outcomes and decided to test the model further in Eccles, Pendleton and Swinton.
Since then, Ben has gone on to secure a long-term, mainstream contract with Salford CCG as well as taking his first step outside of Salford, with Empower You commissioned in Trafford. The approach will work with each of the boroughs to support active lifestyles by disabled people.
Throughout the last five years, Ben has become a go-to person when it comes to physical activity for disabled people. Now, he delivers training to organisations on how to work more inclusively - from training staff, to working as a consultant with infrastructure and greenspace design teams.
Ben said: “The ideal for me is that disabled people don’t need to access services like mine and can just access things in the mainstream. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense that there’s one provision for one group and another for another. I feel we should be past that stage, although, for now, there is still much work to be done.”
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped Ben either; he has continued to support online keep active sessions for disabled people in Trafford, as well as consultancy, working with Salford Community Leisure to develop resources to support inclusive PE sessions for disabled children in mainstream schools.
Anna added: “Ben has done incredibly well, and appears to go from strength to strength in this field. We are very proud of him and what he has achieved.”
With the University of Salford and Unlimited Potential’s support, Ben is working to transition to an independent enterprise, carrying over the work he is doing now to his own company, Beyond Empower.
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