One man’s passion to make Birchington accessible for anyone affected by disability

Colin Brown and guide dog Ron

By Mary Cooke

Colin Brown has a passion to make Birchington more accessible for anyone affected by disability. He is a retiree who moved to the village 10 years ago and is registered as blind.

“People don’t think, because they don’t relate to disability,” says the Birchington Parish Councillor, “It’s about the little things.”

“I’ve got an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which means night blindness,” he says. “When it’s dark, I can’t see anything at all, when it’s light, I can see a little bit, but it gets worse as you get older.”

A former chief executive of Blind Independence Greenwich,  Colin created Disability Awareness Birchington, or DAB, in October 2023 as an “umbrella” for all disabled people, organisations, family members and carers to come together and help make Birchington more accessible.

Disability Awareness Birchington’s logo of the umbrella is symbolic of their message of inclusiveness. “We’ve got a good group now where we’ve all got the same aims, all got different skills, but the same aims. We want to make Birchington inclusive to all.”

Mr Brown, who is accompanied by guide dog Ron, had noticed that there were lots of clubs for those with disabilities in Birchington, but they didn’t liaise with each other. His solution to that is by “providing an umbrella of active support, guidance and information to residents of Birchington, including their family and carers, who are affected by any kind of disability.”

He was elected on May 4th and is the only member of the parish council with a disability. “Part of my role as chairperson of [DAB] is I’m out there to spread the word, talk to people about what their needs are, and how we can fulfil that.”

He adds: “A lot of people look at the disability first and the person second. Well, we want to try and turn that round and look at the person first and then disability second. That’s where we come in. How we can make (the village) accessible to all.”

Birchington-On-Sea has the highest population of disabled people in Thanet according to the 2021 Census. Mr Brown puts this down to the village being a popular spot for retirees such as himself. “I think a lot of it is that in Birchington, about 60-62% of people are over the age of 65,” he says.

Source DAB

However, Colin’s message is clear: “We don’t just want to help support senior citizens. We’ve got to start off with younger people because they can take it forward and push it on.”

The government estimates that around 24% of the population have a disability, or around 16 million people. That works out to at least 1 in 5 people in the UK who have a long-term illness, impairment or disability. Accessibility measures are important for people who live with disability to have the same opportunities as everyone else, and to stand on equal ground as everyone else, and enjoy the same things as those who do not suffer with disability.

What stands out about DAB, is how they don’t want to stand out: “We don’t want to invent issues”, he says. “One big issue in Birchington at the moment is we’ve got a village hall, but the loop system’s been out of commission for about nine months now. If you don’t need it, it’s no big deal. If you do need it, it stops people accessing that information”.

A hearing loop system allows those who use hearing aids to connect wirelessly to an audio source, for example, the sound system at a concert. This makes auditory events more accessible to deaf and partially deaf people, so without it those who rely on it are at an acute disadvantage and may isolate them from certain events and activities that those without disabilities take for advantage.

“We solved one problem a week or so ago where the lady couldn’t take her buggy around because there’s too many things in the aisle. Having a word with the manager, that was soon solved within 25 minutes,” Mr Brown says. The passion that he has for the project is clear.

“Birchington has no up kerbs or down kerbs,” he says. This means those who use a wheelchair or a disabled buggy have to carefully plan their routes so they can get around the village.

He also recently found out that despite Birchington having lots of defibrillators, nobody is actually servicing them. “It’s little things like that people don’t realize. We’re trying to fill that gap as well.”

The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. Shops in Birchington, the Parish Council and the Tory MP for North Thanet Sir Roger Gale have all been full of praise for the project.

Photo Frank Leppard

“I’m more willing to promote any sensible cause, and it is in the case of disability awareness the name is on the tin, raising awareness people with disabilities,” says Sir Roger, who is currently Deputy Speaker of the house.

He adds: “There is this slogan, ‘not all disabilities are visible.’ I think we need to remember, fine, if somebody’s got a white stick or they’re walking on a crutch, it’s pretty obvious they’ve got a disability. But not all disabilities are that overt. People can have disabilities without them being obvious. We’ve done quite a lot of work in that field because we think it’s necessary.”

Disability Awareness Birchington is a non-profit, but Colin makes it clear they’re not a charity. “We do fundraise. We’ve just done a fundraising thing at Blends Cafe last weekend for a quiz.” He says, adding: “We want to make sure people have fun at the same time.”

Sir Roger and his team work closely with the disabled community. “We work with the Strode Park Foundation for the Disabled in Herne Bay. We work with Speak Up CIC, Maggie Gallant’s organisation in Margate.” So, for the MP, this is an event he is happy to promote.

DAB will be at the Festability event at Quex, which is an inclusive festival for people with disabilities and those without, on June 15 from noon-6pm. Festability itself runs from 11.30am to 8pm and tickets can be bought at: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/festabilitycic/991740

The DAB launch date is July 27th when Sir Roger will be conducting the official opening at Dog Acre at 11am.

DAB is also building a website which can be found at: https://da-birchington.org/

18 Comments

        • Not been very effective, has he?
          ‘Birchington has no up kerbs or down kerbs,” he says. This means those who use a wheelchair or a disabled buggy have to carefully plan their routes so they can get around the village.’

          Despite Roger Gale’s decades of campaigning.

          • That statement is not true. There may not be many, but Birchington most certainly DOES have dropped kerbs. It also has THREE crossings (two Zebra, one pelican) in the High Street alone – ALL with dropped kerbs. Ms. Pink knows this, as I wheel my shopping trolley around the village regularly. Get out of Ramsgate for a hour or two and see for yourself, you might widen your horizons a little.

  1. Ms Pink:
    The piece says, and I quote (again):
    ‘“Birchington has no up kerbs or down kerbs,” he says. This means those who use a wheelchair or a disabled buggy have to carefully plan their routes so they can get around the village.” ‘
    So don’t have a go at me.
    Take it up with the Birchington Parish Councillor Colin Brown, founder of Disability Awareness Birchington, who made the statement.

  2. Ms Pink: I was quoting Colin Brown, Parish Councillor and founder of Disability Awareness Birchington.
    Direct your ire towards him.

    • I’m aware who you were quoting (I read the story). You’d still know this too if you visited the village for yourself – let me know when you’re coming and I’ll treat you to a cuppa in Cafe on the Square.

        • Or a Mafia reference? The owners are from Sicily.

          Seriously, treat yourself. Birchington-on-sea has arguably the widest selection of eateries in Thanet, nearly all of them excellent. Quex Park is well worth a visit too, Thanet’s hidden gem!

          (warning though – there are no art galleries or LGBTQetc “safe spaces”!).

          • I purely commented that Colin is a local hero which is a nice thing to say but you then added about Roger who we all know about!
            ‘He’s been campaigning on before of the disabled for decades. What have you done?’

          • ‘Contrary to assertions[,] the overwhelming majority of jobs are not “zero hours contracts” or “part-time” or “low-skilled[“]. They are worthwhile full-time posts offering real rewards and satisfaction.’
            So, Mr Gale is saying that zero hours, part time and low paid jobs are worthless?
            Charming.

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