"People ask if I smoke? Only on the M6, I say. Humour has got me through some dark times."
Alan Reid CEO Disability First
Alan Reid is the Blackpool-based Disability First charity chief who bagged almost £1m of Government funding to make the whole of the Fylde Coast more welcoming to disabled visitors – and residents.
It would have been a coup for a national charity let alone a small charity with just four members of staff and five trustees.
Alan accepts some see his work as ‘worthy but dull’. He asks how they can applaud Invictus Games veterans and Paralympians one day – and yet not appreciate the struggle many have had to get to where they are… or even make their own way home.
Or to understand, for all the jokes, how galling it must for The Lost Voice Guy – now on tour – to book into a so-called accessible room in a leading hotel chain and find the requested shower is in the bath … an insurmountable obstacle.
Alan, 58, knows what it's like.
He, too, is disabled. At 20 his life changed in an instant – an inferno. His car went up in flames on the M6 motorway. He suffered third degree burns to much of his body. His musician’s hands a mess, tendons slipped, skin gone.
He still plays keyboards – and well.
His loss was the charity’s gain. What he saw in the old Royal Preston hospital and Sharoe Green burns unit, what he learned about himself there, made him want to help people.
“Up until then I was quite reserved. It brought me out. It made me see life.” He also had to come to terms with the death of several friends he had made on the wards.
Alan signed up as a volunteer with the charity in 1988 and soon co-ordinated other volunteers. He was taken on staff as manager, and last year became CEO. Disability First was formerly known as Disability Information Services. It advises, informs and supports disabled people, families and carers across Blackpool and the Fylde and further afield. Specialist asbestos-cancer related support services span Lancashire and are now Cumbria.
On Friday Disability First celebrates its 25th anniversary. The date marks its reinvention after fighting back from threat of closure – taken under the wing of an umbrella organisation until it could stand on its feet again. The council later stepped in with Single Regeneration Budget funding to transform a rundown community centre into the Centre for independent Living on Whitegate Drive – a fantastic space, with communal café and gardens, that Disability First shares with other agencies. It now has even more to celebrate with That grant...
Alan played a key role in that fightback. In turn, the charity helped him fight back too. “I’d find it hard to retire,” he admits. “Coming here is my therapy, my tonic, my elixir. Here people see me for who I am. They accept me.”
His aim is to do the same for others, those of the 13.9m disabled people in Britain, who may live or work here or visit the Fylde Coast.
The charity-led Access Fylde Coast project has more than £800k to come from the Coastal Communities fund – over the next few years. It is advertising for five key workers. Blackpool Council has issued surveys for disabled people and the business community. The influential alliance behind the winning bid, advised in turn by the local disability partnership, is shaping the various elements.
The official launch is in April at the Spanish Hall in Blackpool Winter Gardens.
In strategist-speak it’s all about developing “an over arching welcome”. In Alan-speak it’s about getting disabled people “off Planet Disability, a totally separate community, and into the main community.”
He’s had his share of the stares – particularly in the pre-Simon Weston era – and the “what the hell happened to you?”
Even that’s preferable, Alan admits, to the “oh, poor you, so brave.”
He says he’s not brave, he just got on with life. “My wife Carol’s braver. She took me on. She saw the real me. She was protective, too. If someone kept staring she’d say ‘what do you want? A picture?’”
Carol had turned up to buy an organ from him – “perhaps we’d better to call it a keyboard” – and left with a husband in waiting.
“I knew this was the man I was going to marry.”
Alan adds: “We have three fantastic kids. When their friends came round they would ask ‘what happened to your dad?’ and they’d say ‘oh, he got burnt in a fire’. OK. Mystery over. I’d like to see children educated about disability earlier. That would reduce negative perceptions.”
Alan was living his dream at 20, a musician by night, keyboards and vocals, in clubs, bars, theatres. By day he was a jobbing extra, walk ons, bit parts, soaps one day, Crown Court the next. He was playing a young soldier in Brideshead Revisited – and had just had his collar straightened by Jeremy Irons - when he made his way home in his Mini from the old Granada studio, Manchester.
“Blink and you’ll miss it,” he says of his Brideshead scene. He then confides it was 48 hours after the accident before he could open one eye, another 12 hours before he could open the other, let alone blink.
He was near the Preston junction on the M6 when his car stalled in the middle lane.
Two cars swerved to avoid him. The third, a hefty Volvo estate, ploughed into him, splicing the petrol tank, and pinning him against the central barrier. Both cars went up in flames.
No broken bones for either motorist. But Alan had third degree burns.
“Two of the people that pulled over along with the driver at the back pulled me out of the car. You have literally seconds before it all goes up.
“I was dragged off the motorway, sat in someone’s car, all my skin gone. You get the initial pain then it goes past that.
“It’s an amazing thing, shock. I thought I’d be out of hospital in no time. I’ve got out of the car, I’m still here, no broken bones.
“With third degree burns your fluid runs out all the time, there’s nothing to stop it. My head went up like a balloon. My eyes shut within half an hour. I didn’t know if I’d see again.
“The sister said you’ll be in and out of hospital for the next five years. You won’t look the same and you won’t be able to do some of the things you could.
“To call it a bombshell would put it too lightly. It was like the world had collapsed. They actually brought me a bottle of whiskey.”
He had eight operations under general anaesthetic and as many more under local anaesthetic over the years that followed.
His hands – so crucial to his music – were saved by the skill of a surgeon.
“I was fortunate the consultant specialised in hands. My tendons had slipped. I came round and my hands were up in the air in suspended stockings.
“I soon trained them how to use a pint, funnily enough.
“It sounds all gloom and doom but the laughs we had on that ward meant a lot when you’re there for 10-12 weeks.
“You can improve things massively with operations but there wasn’t much support for mental health. The nurses brought me out of myself. They would send me off to chat to patients who were fed up. It was like a war zone. You made friends in adversity. I lost friends in there too. It made me realise I wanted to help people.
“I started getting on with life again. I could go down the top myself route or kick myself up the backside and get on with it. I got on with it.”
Outside, he learned to deflect the stares and questions. “I think that’s when the sick jokes started. Do you smoke? Only on the M6.”
He resumed his music. “There wasn’t as much call for an extra with my looks back then! I went back into music. Without getting into musical theory I had to change the way I did fingering and the inversion of chords because of my limitations.
It was a real challenge. The other challenge was the public. They saw this guy who looked like Niki Lauda getting on stage – when they were used to everything and everyone on stage looking beautiful and pretty.
“My wife, family and friends got me through. It’s only very occasionally now that people make the odd comment. Simon Weston changed perceptions –a year after my accident he was on telly and everything he said resonated with me, I just relived it all, the dressings, the pain, the morphine, skin grafts.”
His regular residency, Bispham Conservative Club, recently hosted a fundraiser for the charity featuring comedian Johnnie Casson.
Charity trustee Brian Carney, a high powered sales and marketing executive until multiple sclerosis changed HIS life, pays tribute to Alan’s drive and determination.
“This charity would not be in the position is is today without Alan, his drive and passion to take the charity forward. The people around him support him but it is Alan’s focus.
“The problem is he never stops.”
“They all worry I’m going to burn myself out,” Alan chuckles. “I tell them I’ve done that already…”
Survey Link for individuals http://www.blackpool.gov.uk/FyldeAccess
Survey Link for businesses http://www.blackpool.gov.uk/FyldeAccessBusiness