Newsmaker: Independence of mind - Ruth Owen, Chief executive, Whizz-Kidz

Maria Clegg

Disabled from birth, Ruth Owen recalls vividly what life was like before she had a wheelchair. "I'd be inside, looking at my brothers and sisters playing marbles in the street," she says. In early childhood, she explains, it's important to be able to play with children your own age rather than spending all your time in adult company. "My mother had to fight for me to have a wheelchair. It's a big enough fight for a child to deal with their disability and have hope for the future without having to deal with that too."

At seven, she got her first wheelchair, and glows with the recollection of what it meant for her. "I was free, I could get around and do things without asking someone to do it for me. It meant independence." And she has not looked back since.

"Life has taught me to be resilient," Owen says. "I've never bothered to set myself any obstacles because there were enough of those to begin with. I'm independent, and that's all in your mind, not your body."

As a young woman beginning her working life, Owen dreamed of a high-flying career in the City, and ignored the caring professionals trying to coach her in the art of managing her soon-to-be frustrated ambition. "After I left school, I never wanted anything to do with disability organisations. I was determined to have an independent, what you'd call 'normal', life. I did all of that and by my own criteria, I was successful. I had my own business, my own home, a full life. Then I thought, 'I could do more'."

In 2002, Owen became a trustee for Barnardo's. She says that this experience made her look at her life in a different way, and she began to think about putting her business skills to use in a different context. Last summer, she sold her stake in the software company she set up 10 years ago, and devoted her time to the search for the right job for the right charity.

She applied for the post of chief executive at Whizz-Kidz and took up the post in January. She still seems slightly dazed by her good fortune that the perfect job should come up at the perfect time.

Although Owen doesn't believe that it's essential that the chief executive should live the experiences of the charity's users, she thinks of her personal experience of growing up using a wheelchair as a bonus. "I have been a wheelchair-user most of my life, and I think that it sends a powerful message about the charity. But I've never liked or wanted to be held up as a role model. We're all unique, and everyone has their own goals," she says.

Owen has a knack of pointing out the absurd ways that being in a wheelchair affects your life; how, for example, her residential school was set on a hill that only a daredevil would have attempted in a wheelchair. What is quite breathtaking is that, even today, children have difficulty getting specialised mobility equipment. Although equipment is available through the NHS, lack of funds and the ever-present postcode lottery mean that there are massive gaps in service provision. A simple adapted tricycle can cost as little as £350, and a powered wheelchair can run to as much as £11,000.

Whizz-Kidz loans equipment to children as young as two-years-old, and provides training, gives advice to families and, through national campaigning, raises public awareness of mobility issues.

The charity considers the child's needs and offers equipment that will help them to be more in control. "You look at their lifestyle, the place where they live, their school. If they're into sports, we provide equipment that will enable them to have an active life. That's very important because children develop emotionally through play.

"While my friends were playing football, I used to have to sit with the coats and bags and jewellery," she laughs, catching an invisible anorak as it's thrown to her on the sidelines. Owen believes passionately that giving a child control over their own mobility changes their lives in all sorts of unexpected ways. "When you give a child mobility, you free their mind and open them up to everything that life has to offer."

Around 90 per cent of the charity's income is raised through public fundraising.

"There is a huge need and we can only touch the tip of the iceberg," says Owen. "My priority is generating income, no question about it."

Owen takes over from the founder, Mike Dickson, who set the charity up in 1990. "It's a very young dynamic charity, and it grows year on year. This is such a good cause, but we can do so much more."

Owen is tremendously excited when talking about new resources that will make real differences in children's lives, such as the charity's new mobility centre in Newcastle which brings together families, therapists and mobility equipment dealers. But while Owen is ecstatic for the lucky ones, and anguished by the years of waiting for the others, she believes that mobility is an issue that needs more than intervention on a case-by-case basis.

"Change will only happen through legislation. We need to change the public perception about what it means to be a child without the appropriate mobility equipment. Could you imagine what it would be like if you couldn't get out of your armchair for years on end? Or if you had to ask someone to pass you something that was right there in front of you because you had no way of getting it yourself? A three-year waiting list is no good when you're growing up."


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