Interview: Ruth Owen

The chief of Whizz-Kidz says that it will continue to grow - but will stay on message

Ruth Owen
Ruth Owen

Ruth Owen is earning a reputation as one of the more no-nonsense chief executives in the voluntary sector, not least because of the way she bounced the shadow Chancellor into running the London Marathon this year for her charity, Whizz-Kidz.

Ed Balls first learned he was going to run for the disabled children's charity when Owen presented him with a running vest at a public event last year and told him she'd signed him up.

"I gave him the nudge and the nudge succeeded," she says. "I thought why not? It was a good way of raising our profile and I think he's pleased he's done it - good on him."

The episode is typical of her focused and strong-willed approach to life and the charity. Owen says: "I've wanted to be in charge of my own destiny rather than listen to the negative people in my life or sit on benefits and do nothing." Her legs failed her after a serious illness as a young child, which resulted in her getting her first wheelchair when she was seven years old. But she regards her mind as her most powerful muscle - and that's the message she emphasises to the mobility-impaired children that the charity supports.

"You can do anything you put your mind to," she says. "I had so many people tell me that I wouldn't go on to employment, it was ridiculous. So I got rid of them. So many people want you to say no but I wanted to say yes, so I pushed on."

Receiving recognition

Her parents were told to leave her in a home and get on with their lives. Instead, they raised the eldest of their five children to expect no sympathy, set a good example, be independent and never take the safe route. Owen says it will be rewarding for them to accompany her to Buckingham Palace later this year when she receives the OBE in recognition of her services to disabled children and young people. She regards the honour as a team effort and is delighted for the profile that it gives the Whizz-Kidz cause - supporting children and young people to access the right mobility equipment.

She says: "I know how important it is to get your own mobility and independence and to make decisions for yourself. Not having personal mobility is hugely frustrating - you feel trapped and isolated. You are not able to participate and have an active childhood. I haven't forgotten that, and I think that's what drives me even more to ensure that young people get the mobility equipment they need."

Owen reluctantly acknowledges that, as a wheelchair user, she has had to prove herself more in the workplace and that having a disability has its challenges, especially with transportation; but she believes legislation has improved working conditions. "When I first started work there were steps all over the place and buildings did not have disabled toilets," she recalls. "The City was a hugely difficult place to work, but I was determined that having a career would give me choice, financial independence and, more importantly, allow me to contribute to society and have an active life. It is important and tough for anyone to get a job and it is no different for a wheelchair user - in fact, it's harder."

Gaining independence

When she joined Whizz-Kidz in 2004, Owen decided the charity should not only provide wheelchairs, but also help young people to gain independence by providing life skills training and establishing a successful work placement programme. She wants the charity to continue to expand, but is conscious that it has to be on an appropriate scale. She says: "The chairman of my board is the former chairman of Tesco - between us we have plans to support more children and young people. So we will grow, but in the right way.

"I'm completely focused on the main meal, not becoming something different. The danger is that once an organisation's profile is raised you have to comment on all sorts of things - and I don't do that. I'm selective in what I do in terms of being on-message for Whizz-Kidz." The charity's main aims are to support more children and young people and to be the provider of choice to the NHS.

Historically, disability charities have been criticised for not being run by disabled people, but Owen is adamant that recruitment should be down purely to personal capability. "Whether you have a disability or are a walking person, it is about your ability to lead, so for me it is about that and being a wheelchair user has nothing to do with it," she says.

The charity has a Kidz Board, made up of young people who are wheelchair users. It meets four times a year and influences decision-making at the organisation.

Owen says: "As a charity, it is important to listen to our customers and get them to play an active role. It's wonderful seeing children who used to be shy working with and challenging politicians." Ed Balls will no doubt attest to that.

CV:

2004: Chief executive, Whizz-Kidz

1994: Ran her own IT company

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