How Leeds centre harnesses technology to make disability no barrier

Colin McDonnell with staff at the centre
Colin McDonnell with staff at the centre
Share this article
Have your say

Independent lives: For over 30 years, disabled people have been shown how technology could improve their lives at the william merritt centre. Katie Baldwin sees the difference it makes.

Before there’s even chance to explain how Colin McDonnell uses his iPhone using only head movements, he’s deftly demonstrating a skill that few could match.

The 20-year-old has athetoid cerebral palsy which means he uses a wheelchair and cannot operate a touch screen phone in the usual way.

But that’s not going to stop him.

Instead a gadget scans his phone, which is mounted on his chair in front of him, while Colin uses a switch on the headrest of his chair to indicate when it should stop so he can select a function.

It’s incredibly impressive, and all the more so because this is just one of countless things he can use, do or take part in.

As his mum Susan says: “There’s no ‘can’t’ any more. It’s ‘how?’”

“The centre been absolutely fantastic for him and their input changes everything.”

Colin has been coming to the William Merritt Disabled Living Centre since he was four, with them first able to advise on equipment which might help him practically.

This is one of the main aims of the facility, which is based on the St Mary’s Hospital site in Armley, Leeds.

It was established in 1981 and named after a former Leeds councillor who pioneered a scheme to help disabled people and encouraged the development of voluntary organisations in the field.

The centre is the only one of its kind in the city and the biggest in the region, helping people with disabilities from infancy to adulthood.

The experts based there offer free assessments and advice on equipment that will help disabled people to live independently.

No referral is necessary and the centre doesn’t sell equipment – it just advises on what could help and let clients try it out beforehand.

That’s why there’s a fully adapted kitchen there, as well as an array of wheelchairs and scooters and other equipment.

An assessment will show what the person’s needs are, and then the centre’s staff can suggest things to help.

Occupational therapist Paula Spencer says: “We are able to tell clients what equipment is available.

“We have a much broader spectrum that what is available through social care or the health service.

“We can help with lots of things which are not ordinarily available. Some of our children have a wheelchair provided by the NHS, but they may want to do wheelchair ballet or wheelchair tennis.

“For families who do a lot of walking, there are buggies which are lighter.”

It’s not only equipment that will help practically that the centre provides.

Their schemes which enable young people to use the latest technology or games, just as their friends and family can, are very popular.

As Jan Spencer, chairman of appeals at the centre, explains, there’s nothing worse for a teenager than to have to rely on their mum to send text messages for them.

“It’s allowing people to join in with their family and friends, rather than sitting on the sidelines,” she said.

Paula added: “It’s trying to encourage people to have these ideas about what they want to do and hopefully we can make it happen.”

Colin’s mum said they were able to come to the centre and try out equipment, which helped them greatly.

“For starters it was the equipment, then we moved on to other things,” Mrs McDonnell said.

“It’s being able to join in with things.

“It’s not ‘you cannot do’ any more. It’s ‘I want to do this - and how?’.”

Colin, who won the Outstanding Bravery Award for teenagers at the Yorkshire Children of Courage Awards in 2012, not only is pushing the boundaries himself, but helping others. He volunteers at the centre to show other clients how technology could help them.

And he is about to embark on work experience there, sharing the skills he is developing through the diploma in Applied IT he is doing at Leeds City College’s Technology Campus.

“As much as Colin has gained from coming here, he’s also on the lookout all the time for something else that would help another person,” his mum added.

“It’s helped Colin so much and there are a lot of other people who could gain so much from coming to the centre.”

She said that the continuity provided by the centre, as it cares from all ages from babies to adults, was a massive benefit.

“Throughout the years, we’ve known we can pick up the phone and ring here,” said Mrs McDonnell, from Meanwood, Leeds.

“He’s gone through the school system and become an adult, and that’s sometimes been a bit difficult. Here it’s the same people.”

That’s a benefit for all the centre’s clients, who can benefit whatever their age.

Jan added: “A lot of older clients are asking if they can have these new technologies.

“If you think about TVs, all of those can be adapted. Everything they use can be adapted.”

In the future, much of the centre’s work is going to be using telecare or telehealth technology.

The staff are now working with hi-tech firms, some of who may never have come across the issues faced by disabled people, but whose expertise could be useful for them.

The centre’s latest innovation is Tryb4uFly, a mock-up of an aircraft cabin.

Measuring the same dimensions as a real 747 and with the same seats, donated by British Airways and complete with TV screens, the aim is to allow people with disabilities to see what it’s like on a plane to see whether it can accommodate their or their child’s needs.

They can try out approved equipment for travelling on flights, such as supportive seating, learn how to access it and staff will also talk them through what to expect at an airport.

“Families might think flying is not an option,” Paula said.

“This does make it a real possibility.”

Colin is looking forward to trying out the service – and this is another innovation from the centre which could help him experience the same things as anyone else.

“It’s the whole thing of joining in with what everybody else is able to do automatically,” his mum said.

“We just need to break down the barriers. That’s what this is allowing him to do.”

She said there’s a presumption that people with disabilities can’t do certain things, but Colin has overcome many of these barriers.

“You don’t let things stop you, do you?” she told him, affectionately.

Later this year, the William Merritt Centre will launch the biggest fundraising appeal in its history.

In the not too distant future, it will have to move from its current site at St Mary’s Hospital in Armley, Leeds.

Over the last few years the centre has already gone through some major organisational changes – after 32 years of being part of the NHS, following last year’s health service reforms, it became a social enterprise.

This came with the support of doctors and other health workers who can see the multitude of benefits the centre provides.

The centre is also a charity and will need to raise £500,000 to eventually move to new, purpose-built premises.

There are a number of requirements for the new building, including space to park the adapted cars it uses and which are used to carry out assessments of driving on behalf of the DVLA, and for individuals.

To kickstart that fundraising, a Some Like It Hot-themed ball is being held on September 27.

Jan Spencer, the centre’s chairman of appeals, said: “The ball will be the launch of a big fundraising event because we need to move to a purpose-built building.

“We need a building with space for cars and we would like tracks for kids to try out the sports wheelchairs. We have got to raise a substantial amount of money.”

General fundraising is also needed for the centre, which provides some services for free whilst others are subsidised.

The ball in September will be at the Royal Armouries and will be attended by gold medallist paralympian David Stone.

Buy tickets for the ball via or 0113 3058989.

Visit for more on the centre and its services.

Luke Glendenning

Family’s torment after death of Luke, 10, following ‘routine’ operation