Conference plans – call for contributions and help organising!

Apologies for the longer-than-intended absence – I’ve had a lot going on this summer, some of it unexpected.

I’m now planning to organise a conference/workshop event on disabled people, co-ops and co-operation, to hopefully happen at the University of Leeds in January or February 2023 – but this is where I need your help!

The conference will obviously include a presentation of my research, but I also want to have other presentations from anyone who is doing any work – academic or otherwise – about disabled people and co-ops, and more practical workshops about things like setting up new co-ops, or improving the accessibility of co-op governance (to give two possible examples).

If you would be interested in giving a presentation or workshop at the conference, please get in touch with me! At the moment plans are in very early stages, so there is a lot of flexibility for different possible types of contributions.

I’m hoping, depending on the space that the event ends up happening in, that it will also be possible for relevant organisations (e.g. co-op support organisations or co-op networks) to have stalls or other forms of advertising at the event.

Ideally, I’d like to make this conference a hybrid event (combining online and in-person elements), to balance various access needs and Covid safety considerations. I’d welcome any thoughts or advice on this, as I have no previous experience of organising hybrid events.

(I’m aware that many disabled people’s response may be that it isn’t safe or acceptable to be having in-person conferences/events at all. If I get an overwhelming number of responses saying this, I may well decide to make the event entirely online.

However, I do think that there are certain things that would be lost, and some access needs that could not be met, in a wholly online event – for example, one thing I would really love to happen at this event is for groups of people with shared interests, maybe including people who have never met or heard of each other before, to get together to form potential new co-ops. I feel like this would be a lot harder to do in a wholly online event.

I’m also aware that many disabled people are not very familiar with, or find it hard to access, online tools like Zoom or the internet in general, and I want it to be possible to include them too. I’d be happy to enter into conversations about these issues.)

I would also appreciate any offers of help with organising the event! I am very much feeling like it is a bigger task than can be organised by one person alone. I’m hoping to get some support from the University, but other offers would also be welcome.

If you’d be interested in being involved with this in any way, please do contact me. Also, just a quick reminder that you can now subscribe to (occasional) email updates on my research.

Email updates

I don’t know how many readers this blog has, but I know a couple of people have subscribed to new posts on WordPress.

I just thought it worth mentioning here that, if anyone is interested in hearing updates on my research, I can also add you to an email update list. Updates will be very occasional, but you will hear about any relevant “outputs” of the research (i.e. reports, journal papers/other publications, events that I present my research at, etc.)

If you want to get email updates, please contact me via the form on this site, or email me at s.graby@leeds.ac.uk.

Even if you don’t want to get email updates, I’d also in general love to hear from anyone who has anything to say about my research, or about disabled people and co-ops in more general terms!

I am also in the early stages of planning/thinking about organising a conference or workshop event about disabled people, co-ops and co-operation. I will definitely need people to collaborate with on this, so please do get in touch if you’d like to help with it or have any ideas for things that could happen in it.

Survey reopened until end of July

A line drawing combined from images in the Change image bank, representing the survey for co-ops. On the left, a person at a computer displaying a survey on screen with tick boxes and like/dislike faces, above the Co-op Marque. On the right, a person at a computer analysing data. An arrow containing the repeated word "information" points into their computer.

The survey for co-ops that is one of the 3 strands of my research (for more detail see here) was originally open from March to May 2022. In that time, I got 50 responses, but due to lots of other stuff that I had going on, I didn’t manage to look at the responses until the end of June.

There is a lot of valuable data in there, but 50 is quite a low number compared to the number of co-ops in the UK (which is not known exactly, but estimated at over 7,000 in the 2021 Co-op Economy report). Therefore, and because I am still busy with a lot of other stuff (particularly getting the data from the interviews and case studies – the other 2 strands of this research – transcribed and analysed), I have decided to reopen the survey until the end of July, in case it’s possible to get more responses before what feels like a reasonable time for being able to focus on it.

The survey is online here.

If you are in a co-op of any kind within the UK, and your co-op hasn’t filled in the survey already, please answer it! How long it will take will vary according to how detailed answers you want to give, but it is unlikely to take much longer than 15 minutes.

Also, whether or not you are in a co-op yourself, please spread it to any networks of co-ops or people involved with co-ops that you know!

June update: interviews, case studies, and Sweden!

collage of 4 photos taken in various parts of Stockholm: a city skyline with historic buildings and church towers across water; a street with colourful apartment buildings; a green-painted wooden house surrounded by trees in a park; city rooftops with a pair of tall, geometrically shaped concrete towers behind

It feels like it’s been a long time since I updated anything here, but actually it has only been a month. While my time perception is always a bit unreliable, I think it probably feels longer because it has been an eventful month!

I’m still doing research interviews, but I feel like this is now coming towards its end. I originally said I would do them between March and May, but (perhaps predictably) time got a bit flexible and I have ended up doing them scattered over time and through most of June. I have a couple yet to schedule that may go into July – but I have now done 17 individual interviews and I’m going to do between 3 and 5 more, which neatly fits with my original plan of doing approximately 20. My second call for participants aimed particularly at members of workers’ co-ops seems to have worked, as several people who are or have been members of workers’ co-ops (of a variety of types and sizes) responded to it, so I now feel like I’ve probably got (as far as can be possible in such a small sample) reasonably broad coverage of the types of co-ops that exist in the UK (especially also taking into account my case studies).

I’ve also hopefully got a few interviews to come with people in my 3 case study co-ops: Enabled Works (as seen in my previous post), Signalise, and Co-operative Care Colne Valley (there will be posts on these latter two!), but I think all my interviewing will be done (barring anything unexpected) by about a week into July. Then, of course, I need to get it all transcribed (luckily, I have an available transcription co-op), coded and analysed…

The survey for co-ops, which was the third strand of this research, closed at the end of May. Due to being busy, I still haven’t looked in detail at the results, but there will be an update soon with preliminary findings.

In early June I also mixed business with pleasure by spending a week in Sweden – my first travel outside the UK since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Visiting friends and sightseeing were parts of the trip (the image gallery at the top of this post is a selection of photos of Stockholm), but I also did some interviews while away (by the magic of Zoom), and most excitingly managed to visit Sweden’s largest and oldest disabled people’s personal assistance co-op, STIL (Stockholm Independent Living). While the official scope of this research is disabled people’s involvement in co-ops in the UK, STIL is (more or less directly) relevant for several reasons:

  • As I found in my PhD research about personal assistance, the model of personal assistance co-ops that exists in Sweden (and the other Nordic countries) has potential for replication in the UK, and if it could be replicated here, could help significantly with many of the problems experienced by disabled people who employ their own PAs directly (such as difficulty recruiting and retaining PAs, and struggles with administrative aspects of being an employer, such as tax and payroll, which many disabled people here either have to face alone, or pay profit-making agencies to deal with them, which reduces both their control over their personal assistance and the money available to actually pay the PAs).
  • The pure consumer co-op model of STIL and other Nordic independent living co-ops (disabled people who have personal assistance needs are the co-op members; PAs are employees of the co-op, working for/with an individual member, but not co-op members themselves) forms an interesting and worth-analysing contrast with the (relatively few, small and new) personal assistance/social care co-ops in the UK, which are multi-stakeholder co-ops (both service users and workers, and potentially other classes of people as well, are members).
  • STIL, excitingly for me, are potentially interested in being involved (remotely) in the hybrid conference that I am hoping to plan for this autumn – which, while it would probably be an online presentation via Zoom or similar, would make it an international conference!

Overall it has been a fun but somewhat exhausting month (with some interesting developments in my personal life as well). I have a lot to catch up with, but hopefully there will be more updates soon…

Case study co-op: Enabled Works

Today (Wed 25th May) I went to visit one of my case study co-ops for this research, Enabled Works in Morley near Leeds. This visit was an exciting and inspiring (genuinely, not in the cliched and insulting “oh, you’re so inspiring!” way often aimed at disabled people) experience.

Enabled Works was formed by disabled workers from former Remploy ‘sheltered workshops’ in Leeds and Pontefract (with some input also from those in Bradford and York) when Remploy changed their focus from running sheltered workshops to aiming to integrate disabled people into ‘mainstream’ employment, and the workshops were closed. After hearing about workers’ co-ops from a trade union contact who had once been a member of one, the founding members, who I got to interview, fundraised at a union conference and sought advice from others in union and co-op movements, formed the co-op, and opened a business in a new site, retaining some former Remploy packing contracts and subsequently finding other sources of work and income.

A packing assembly line at Enabled Works, with a group of disabled workers with various impairments chatting while packing and unpacking boxes

This was a really fascinating story, as the co-op members are largely disabled people who had been employed in the sheltered workshops, with a variety of impairments, and who wouldn’t necessarily have had any knowledge or background in co-ops before forming Enabled Works. (I remember at the time of the major Remploy closures, around 10 years ago, wishing that there could have been workers’ buyouts of the closed factories to form workers’ co-ops, but not at all thinking that anyone would manage to actually do that – so it was incredibly exciting to find out that someone essentially actually did!)

The co-op has since employed some other disabled people without much previous work experience and worked with further education colleges to introduce young disabled people to the co-op. It was also great to hear about how, unlike both the former Remploy set-up and most other employers, the co-op seems to have a really strong ethos of valuing everyone’s contribution regardless of how many hours they can work and adapting the work to the person rather than vice versa, without compromising efficiency and productivity.

Part of the warehouse space at Enabled Works – a large room with a forklift truck in front of metal shelving with boxes and pallets

Enabled Works have a surprisingly large space with an atmosphere that is down-to-earth and practical, yet almost entirely without the feeling of regimented discipline and intolerance of deviance that typically permeates the factory/warehouse/assembly-line type workplaces that I have seen or experienced. All the workers who I met were proud about both their work and being a co-op. I had been worried about not managing to achieve the same rapport in interviews with them as with the more university-educated, queer, ‘activisty’ and highly online (i.e. like myself) people I have mostly been interviewing as individual participants, but they made me feel incredibly welcome – taking time out to show me the whole place despite their busy work schedules – and gave me a wealth of deeply relevant material.

I can’t remember how I first heard about Enabled Works, but I was surprised at how few people in both disability activist and co-op movement ‘worlds’ seemed to have heard about them. Apart from the trade unions and a bit of contact with a few specific people involved in other co-ops (such as Footprint), they seem to have evolved, and succeeded despite austerity, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, mainly on their own and without directly doing business with many other co-ops – one exception being York Disabled Workers Co-op, which shares their origins of former Remploy workers, and which I had somehow not managed to hear about before seeing their flyer at Enabled Works today!

A noticeboard in the reception area at Enabled Works, with various documents including a health and safety law poster pinned to it, and next to it a poster about “A Co-operative World” and a sign pointing to the disabled access lift

The members at Enabled Works all seemed to share my vision of promoting the idea of co-ops to disabled people who may not be aware that they exist, and of ‘seeding’ new local disability-focused co-ops. I’m hoping that there can be fruitful collaboration with them in the future, including potentially on a conference about disabled people and co-ops and/or a guide to setting up new co-ops for disabled people. Watch this space!

May update: BSL videos, case studies and extended recruitment

A river running through a small town on a bright sunny day, with stone buildings with balconies right next to the river and reflected in the water
The view from the balcony of The Watershed community centre in Slaithwaite, where Co-operative Care Colne Valley held an event on Saturday 14th May 2022.

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything with this WordPress site – partly because I have had a lot going on (including a thankfully mild case of Covid and some personal-life events, both good and bad), but also because there wasn’t a lot to update on the research front. I have done a few more interviews, but was feeling like things were rather frustratingly stalled for most of April. However, luckily in May things picked up again.

I have now got 3 co-ops for case studies:

  • Signalise, a co-op of British Sign Language interpreters and translators and Deaf users of their services, based in Merseyside but operating around the UK.
  • Co-operative Care Colne Valley, a multi-stakeholder care/personal assistance co-op based in a small, relatively rural area of West Yorkshire, with care workers, service users, volunteers and investors as classes of members.
  • Enabled Works, a workers’ co-op in Leeds that grew out of the closure of sheltered workshops for disabled workers. (I’m going to visit them on Wednesday, and I am very much intrigued to find out how exactly they found out about the possibility of becoming a workers’ co-op and how they managed the transition from a highly top-down sheltered workshop structure to a worker-owned and self-managed one…)

All of these co-ops are relatively new, having started within the last decade, and in the cases of Signalise and Co-operative Care Colne Valley within the last few years. Both of these co-ops can also be characterised, to a greater or lesser extent, both as multi-stakeholder co-ops and as platform co-ops – both of which, especially the latter, are relatively new and vaguely defined forms in the UK. Possibly the growth of platform co-ops has been accelerated in a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has forced so much of social life (especially for disabled people) into online spheres, and generally accelerated the digitalisation of society? However, in contrast to the others, Enabled Works, while only a few years older, seems to be a fairly traditional single-stakeholder workers’ co-op with a single physical workplace, and not that much involvement in the online world. All these co-ops, however, seem to have managed to thrive in the face of the increasingly severe challenges of everyday life facing the working class in Britain in general, and disabled people even more acutely. I’m excited to be able to look more deeply into the details of the challenges and barriers that they all have faced and the strategies they have developed to overcome them.

Signalise have also provided me with BSL video translations of the text on 3 key pages on this site: Welcome (the ‘front page’ of the site), About the Research, and my Call for Participants. This makes my site more accessible for Deaf potential participants – who I would love to recruit some of, so if you are reading this and know of any Deaf people (or other disabled people who may be British Sign Language users) who are or have been members of co-ops and who might be interested in participating in this research, please pass this on and/or ask them to contact me. I am very happy to be able to use Signalise’s interpreter services for any interviews with Deaf or otherwise BSL-using participants who any need it!

While I had planned my recruitment period to be March, April and May 2022, given the delays that I have experienced and the fact that I have just got the BSL translations more than halfway through May, I have decided to extend recruitment until the end of June for the following groups, who are as of now under-represented in my research:

  • Members or ex-members of co-ops other than housing co-ops (such as workers’ co-ops or multi-stakeholder co-ops)
  • Deaf participants, or those who use British Sign Language for any other reason (including those who are or have been members of housing co-ops

(Nothing at all against housing co-ops! I just already have a good selection of interviews with disabled people with varied experiences of and perspectives on living in housing co-ops, and far fewer with experience of any other types of co-ops. Of course, the fact that disabled members/ex-members of housing co-ops seem to be easier to find and interview than disabled members/ex-members of other types of co-ops may be a research finding in itself…)

I’m also starting to think more seriously – prompted in part by some of my interviews and by other people who have contacted me – about wanting to organise a conference about disabled people and co-ops, which would not just be an academic event but also have practical purposes like networking between disabled co-operators, and between co-ops in disability fields, for mutual support, and workshops on things like how to make your co-op as accessible as possible and how to set up new co-ops. There’s also the possibility that I may be able to be involved in the Co-operative Ways Forward conference which is happening in Manchester in September.

I would like any conference that I organise to be a hybrid event, which it will be possible to participate in both in person and remotely – both because of Covid and to hopefully meet many other access needs of potential participants which could not all be met by either an in-person event or an online event alone. An online element being included raises the possibility that there may even be one or more international keynote speakers – watch this space!

Thoughts on my first few interviews

I have now done my first 3 interviews (all via Zoom) for this research project! The first was with a friend who lives in a fairly large (around 100 members) housing co-op, which has houses and flats scattered around an inner-city neighbourhood in a city in the North of England. The other two were with two people who responded to my call for participants, who both live in a similarly sized – but very differently structured – student housing co-op in Scotland.

Starting to do my interviews was delayed quite a bit from when I had originally hoped to, first because of the length of time that it took for me to get approval to do my research from the University ethics committee, and then because of some personal stuff that came up unexpectedly just as I was starting to actually contact co-ops and try to recruit participants, so it was exciting to get to start doing some, but also slightly scary. While I have done similar semi-structured research interviews before (both for my Masters dissertation in 2013, and for my PhD in 2015-16), I felt distinctly ‘rusty’ and a bit anxious and lacking in confidence about getting back into doing them!

I was quite grateful to have a friend rather than a stranger as my first interviewee, because that made it feel a lot more comfortable and “natural”, and meant that I could go into my interviews with strangers feeling more practiced. While interviewing friends has its potential pitfalls, and would perhaps be frowned upon in some more traditional takes on qualitative research (in which concepts like ‘objectivity’ and avoidance of bias are highly valued), I believe that pre-existing connection and shared knowledge and experiences between interviewer and interviewee can enhance research by giving access to dimensions of data that interviews with strangers might not be able to. (I write about this in more detail in the methodology chapter of my PhD thesis.) Conversely, however, some things may be easier to ask, or to tell, a stranger than a friend about – and of course this is likely to vary immensely from person to person. Therefore, especially given that a lot of my life and my friendships are in the intersection between disability and co-ops, my aim is to have a balance, as I did in my PhD, between interviewees who I do and don’t know already.

I can already see some themes emerging from these first few interviews, including:

– Co-ops are good for disabled people! Participants so far all said that they found fewer disabling barriers in their housing co-ops than in the other types of housing they had lived in (mainstream social housing, student halls and privately rented housing).
– Co-ops don’t necessarily know much about disability, and disabled people don’t necessarily know much about co-ops before they join them – everyone who I have interviewed so far found out about the co-ops they now live in through friends or co-workers who already lived in or had connections to the co-ops, and their motivations to join were mostly pragmatic (e.g. cheap rent, more housing security and greater willingness to meet access needs than privately rented housing) rather than idealistic (because they specifically wanted to live in a co-op or cared about co-operative values – though all did come to care about those values).
– Co-op governance processes can be frustrating and there can be barriers for disabled people to participating in them, but also disabled people can get to influence co-ops to be better at dealing with disabling barriers through being involved in co-op governance.

I have 3 more interviews scheduled for next week, and potentially a few more in later March or April. However, I am still very much looking for more interviewees! I would ideally like to get at least 20 overall – so if you are a disabled person who is or has been a member of a co-op, and you’d like to take part in this research, please do get in touch. In particular, most of the people who have responded to my call for participants so far are members of housing co-ops, so (while I am definitely up for interviewing more housing co-op members!) I would particularly like to make sure that I get some disabled people who are or were members of workers’ co-ops, or of other types of co-ops such as consumer or multi-stakeholder co-ops.

Everyone who I interview will get a £15 shopping voucher. I haven’t yet sorted out exactly which shops it will be possible to have vouchers for, but I am hoping wherever possible to get vouchers for shops which are co-ops – whether that’s “The Co-op” supermarket chain, or shops local to participants which are workers’ co-ops, such as Unicorn in Manchester.

My timeline for doing interviews is somewhat flexible, but ideally I’d like to do all or at least most of them by the end of May, which is also when I have set my survey to close – after that, I will be analysing the data and turning it into writing!

If you want to know more about who I want to interview and what I am asking people about, see my call for participants.

My research is now live!

After a long wait to get approval from the University ethics committee, I have now been given the go-ahead to make my research public!

There are 3 parts to this research:
1) A survey of co-ops in the UK to find out how many co-ops have disabled members and to what extent co-ops have taken into account disabled people’s access needs;
2) Interviews with disabled people who are or have been members of co-ops, about their experiences in co-ops and what they think and/or how they feel about the intersections between co-ops and disability;
3) A few case studies of co-ops which were created by and/or for disabled people, and/or intended for the purpose of meeting disabled people’s specific needs. (Examples could include housing co-ops specifically providing accessible housing, workers’ co-ops consisting of disabled workers, or co-ops providing services such as personal assistance, sign language interpretation, or disability equality training.)

The survey is now online here on Leeds Online Surveys. This is meant for co-ops (rather than individual members) and should typically take no more than 15 minutes to fill in.

For more details about the interviews, please see my call for participants.

If you know of a co-op that you think it might be good for me to do a case study on, please contact me. I am already aware of some co-ops that I would like to do case studies on (most of which are relatively local to me, i.e. in the North of England, particularly West Yorkshire and Manchester/Lancashire areas), but it would be great to know about any other co-ops involving disabled people in the UK, even if it doesn’t end up possible (for time/capacity reasons) to do case studies of all of them!

As well as this website, I am now on Twitter as @DisabledCoOps, so please follow me there to keep updated! (I now need to work out how to integrate a Twitter feed into this site…)