Orpington man overcomes disability to help others back into work

30 Jan 2017

After a car crash left him with a serious brain injury leading to difficulty with his mobility and speech, Paul Blackburn has overcome physical and emotional barriers to find a new lease of life as a volunteer teaching digital skills.

After the accident in 2006, Paul, 45, from Sidcup, South London spent a long time recovering and rebuilding his strength, but after more than 16 years out of the workplace, he was eager to become more active.

Paul explains: “I’d always been interested in computers and had some skills, so I thought I could be of some use and volunteered to do some admin and data entry at Cotmandene Community Resource Centre - an Online Centre in Bromley that helps local people improve their quality of life with informal skills support.


“My confidence was pretty low, though, and I was quite nervous around people. I’d get embarrassed when people couldn't understand me because of my speech difficulties. Fortunately, the team at the centre were really supportive and let me help out how I could, data entry, helping them keep up to date records, that sort of thing.”

As Paul spend more time at the centre however, he grew more and more comfortable and began to engage more with staff, other volunteers and even clients.

Anita Thundercliffe, Cotmandene Resource Centre Manager tells us: “It didn’t take long for us to realise that Paul had excellent IT skills. As he got more comfortable at the centre his confidence started to grow, and he began to unofficially support clients with their computer needs. Eventually I managed to persuade him to become a Digital Champion - running his own digital skills for work sessions, helping clients with Universal Jobmatch, creating CVs, searching for work and a lot more.”

Not only was Paul helping other people but the sessions were also supporting his own development. He says: “Helping people and having to interact with individuals from lots of different parts of the community has really helped improve my speech and I’m a lot less self-conscious about it. When I first came to Cotmandene, I really wasn’t sure I could interact with people, but this has proved that I really can.”

Anita has seen first hand the difference had made to the people he’s worked with. She says: “Paul has helped clients gain employment and has had a huge positive impact on their lives. He makes his sessions very sociable and clients that have met there have gone on to meet outside socially. He’as supported many elderly clients - some in late eighties - gain IT skills and this has supported them socially and in living independently. 

“He’s also worked with the local Traveller community, many of whom have quite low literacy skills. Paul supported them in looking for work, attaching CVs and building their confidence - so that they now come into our IT suite to work on their own.”

For Paul, seeing the difference he makes to people has made taking that big step to being a Digital Champion more than worth it. He says: “People often come back and say thank you for helping them get a job or something and that’s really lovely. It feels fantastic to be able to help people. When I first came to Cotmandene as a volunteer, I never thought that would be possible.

“I’ve gone from being really anxious about interacting with anyone I didn’t know, to supporting sometimes more than 20 people a week. Being a Digital Champion has changed my life, and it means I can help other people change their lives for the better too.”