Sense Scotland works with children and adults who have communication support needs because of deafblindness, sensory impairment, learning or physical disability. The origins of Sense Scotland go back to a small group of parents of deafblind children who came together in 1977 to offer mutual support and to press for the development of services. Sense Scotland was formalised in 1985 and now has a number of years of experience in providing highly specialised services. Well over 1,000 staff and volunteers work with Sense Scotland, ensuring that over 1,000 children, adults and their families benefit from involvement with their services.
I’d met Business Development Director, Mairi Morrison, at a number of networking events and was impressed by the way Sense Scotland had embraced the concept of Social Enterprise and so when Mairi invited me to the TouchBase facility in Glasgow, I jumped at the chance.
TouchBase acts as the Sense Scotland head office but is much, much more than that. Opened in April 2008 by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Touchbase is a £4.5m development that has transformed a derelict warehouse on the South Side of the River Clyde in City Centre, Glasgow, into a modern, fully accessible conference, support and community venue.
When I arrived at the centre I was greeted by both Mairi and CEO, Gillian Morbey. Gillian has been involved with the voluntary sector in Scotland for 30 years and in 1977 was instrumental in setting up Sense Scotland and has watched the organisation grow from a small parents’ mutual support group to what is now a significant social enterprise.
Both women were clearly very proud of the facility itself and the team of staff, service users and volunteers who make the organisation function so smoothly. And rightly so. The tour started with before and after pictures of the facility and I have to admire to dedication, vision and persistence needed to turn a warehouse that looked fit for demolition into a modern community support centre!
At the centre of the building is a bright, open plan cafe. The cafe welcomes visitors from local businesses and the local community as well as serving staff and centre users. It is run by a team of Sense Scotland staff and service users and so provides a learning and development opportunity for people like Yvonne, who was keen to tell me all about the place and how much she enjoyed working there. I had not met Yvonne before but was told that, thanks to her involvement with the cafe, she is a very different person than she was several years ago. I can believe it and she is a perfect example of the fantastic difference that Sense Scotland has made to peoples lives.
The cafe is a focal point for the community in which TouchBase is an integral part. Local people are encouraged to drop in and enjoy a coffee and a bite to eat. Not only does this raise money for Sense Scotland but, just as importantly, it allows local people to see what is going on there, to gain a better understanding of the needs of the people who are supported from TouchBase and encourages them to get involved in projects and programmes – to become active members of their local community.
The central courtyard, where the cafe sits, can be opened up at evenings and weekends for functions, conferences and exhibitions and will house up to 250 people. Several arts projects have taken advantage of this space but Touchbase can go a step further than simply hosting events. The well appointed arts suites are available for community use, allowing visual arts, music and drama to be created as well as performed in the centre. These suits also provide valuable creative stimulus for service users too, allow adults and young people to create and record music and undertake arts and crafts projects.
The rest of the ground floor acts as a service base for children and families, of which more later.
The upper floors of the building have been converted into conference, training and meeting rooms. This bright modern self contained facility consists of seven flexible rooms located over two floors, which can be hired out individually or as break out rooms and with capacity for 6 to 60 people. Rooms are available weekdays, evening and weekends for half or full day bookings and can be set out to meet diverse requirements; including boardroom style, horseshoe and theatre style. The cafe also boasts an in house catering team which provides a range of refreshments to suit the needs of the event and the budget…. and room hire charges start from as little as £25!
Since the business centre is managed by Sense Scotland you can be sure that all suites are fully accessible. This makes the rooms the perfect choice for other organisations working with disabled people. Local businesses, and businesses from further afield, have also made good use of the meeting rooms; again demonstrating the committment of Sense Scotland to integration of the facility and the service users into the mainstream of the community and the ingenuity in finding commercial, revenue generating opportunities for the centre.
The primary role of Touchbase remains the provision of services for children and adults with sensory impairment, and their families, and the ground floor has a number of specialist facilities to support this key objective. The rooms set aside for visual stimulation and assessment are stunning, with a whole array of lights and textures aimed at providing mood change settings for users and for giving support workers the tools they need to properly assess the degree of impairment, particularly in young children. They more resemble a modern art installation that you can find in most galleries than the image you probably have in your mind about assessment suites! I good happily have passed an hour or so in one of these rooms, changing the lighting and peering into the infinity tube!
There are many personal care suites which have all of the equipment you would expect. Once again the spirit of enterprise is to the for in TouchBase as Sense Scotland are looking to make these facilities available to carers and care workers too, allowing them to make the centre their base when travelling and working in and around Glasgow. The idea is that it will work like a Health Club membership with users paying a small monthly fee to use this part of the centre.
While I was there the centre was full of people and, more importantly, full of life! The place is vibrant.
There was no sense of “coping with” disability and a great sense of enjoying life to the fullest extent possible. There were young people making noise..of course and family rooms where parents could find a moment of peace in a supported environment. I left with a huge smile on my face and feel sure that Sense Scotland will continue to lead the was in providing support for the people who need them by continuing to be excellent in service provision and enterprising in income generation. If you are planning to hold a meeting in the Scottish central belt…call them first!