Blind World Magazine

United Kingdom.
Plans for Beacon Centre include a mini-village.

February 16, 2006.
Express & Star (UK).

WEST MIDLANDS - There is a tinge of emotion in Ian Ferguson's voice as he looks out of a landing window at the Beacon Centre for the Blind.

"I had just started here, it was September 2003," he says. "I looked out of this window, and thought: 'there must be something better than this'."

Ian Ferguson - chief executive at the Beacon Centre

The Beacon Centre chief executive is surveying the view over the charity's campus in Sedgley. It is not the prettiest of sights - rows of 1960s copper-roofed warehouse buildings with an unsightly covered walkway made of corrugated plastic running through the middle.

It was that moment, when the 54-year-old former retail buyer looked through the window, which led to the bold new plans for a 13 million redevelopment of the Wolverhampton Road East site.

"It is like a 1950s army camp," he says. "The facilities are pretty awful. Yet although the place is run down, it's fantastic the work that goes on."

Ian Ferguson arrived in June 2003, having been made redundant by C&A after 29 years. "It was a job for life," he says. "It came as a shock when C&A announced they would be pulling out of the UK."

It was a tough time for the charity, too. Six months earlier its Beacon Industries workshops, which provided jobs for blind and partially-sighted people, had closed and bitter controversy about the decision was still raging.

"Morale was at rock bottom," he says. "Staff didn't talk to each other, and they had very distinct jobs, so we had quite a bit of restructuring to do."

Mr Ferguson had never worked for a charity before, and had no idea what it would be like working with disabled people. "My wife thought I would get too emotionally involved," he says. "I knew very little about blindness when I came here. It was my job to put the place on a business footing, but you do get involved, you have to."

A small, brightly-coloured model in Mr Ferguson's office shows his vision for the future - its garish colours enabling partially-sighted people to understand the working of the plans.

The 13 million scheme will see the entire site demolished and rebuilt as a "mini-village", with a restaurant, gym, coffee shop, a spa bath, and even a small shop and a bar serving alcoholic drinks.

Indeed, as he tours the labyrinth of hastily converted former workshops, you sense Mr Ferguson's frustration at the limitations they impose.

"Some of the people - the younger ones especially - would like a gym where they can work out," he says. "Our gym at the moment is just a few crummy bits of equipment in the corner of a room."

He also wants a new computer suite, where people can access the internet using talking computers.

"The present computer room is not much good for anything but one-to-one tuition," he says. "Why shouldn't visually impaired people use the internet and find a job? Our IT instructor is totally blind, he's a brilliant guy."

Plans have already been submitted to Dudley Council, with work expected to begin within 12 months.

Mr Ferguson hopes the Government will fund the new residential block, giving all residents a self-contained flat with en suite bathroom.

"For many of them it's just a bedroom with a chair at the moment," he says.

But the centre needs to raise around 3 million for the rest of the scheme, requiring the rear of the seven-acre site to be sold for housing. Mr Ferguson insists the actual floorspace of the new centre will increase through more efficient land use.

"Use of the land at the moment is terrible," he says, adding a minibus is required to take residents from the rear of the site to the canteen.

New buildings will be constructed on the huge front lawn, moving the complex closer to the road.

Centre users seem happy enough about this, saying a more compact campus will make life easier.

Yvonne Smith, a 59-year-old visitor to the day centre from Halesowen, says: "Having everything under one roof will make it easier to get around."

Sheila Guest, aged 81, who has lived in a bungalow on the site since August, loves the centre but says the present buildings are out of date. Moving them closer together will give users more independence, she adds.

Paula Millard, aged 53, from Wolverhampton, likes the idea of the on-site shop, saying it will save her venturing outside for groceries.

Mr Ferguson admits his work will be cut out raising the money, with fundraising an increasingly tough business. "There was a big drop in our funds after the Tsunami and the Pakistani earthquake - people have only got so much to give," he says.

But we ignore the needs of the visually impaired at our peril, he warns. "With an ageing population, it is something that will increase," he says. "The Government is predicting a 35 per cent increase within the next five years."

Mr Ferguson cannot hide his admiration for those who lead independent lives, despite a lack of sight.

"When they tell their stories, you cannot help but be moved by the situations they are put in," he says.

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