Dr Amo Raju OBE DL is the CEO of Disability Direct, where he has worked for nearly 30 years. He started as a trainee and within three years became CEO. The charity today employs 70 people and is the largest user-led disability group in the Midlands. Before joining the charity, he had been a singer fronting a Bhangra band, which enjoyed some chart success.
Until I was 9 or 10, I was ignorant of my disability. I have a condition called cerebral palsy, which is the right side of my body affected by diplegia. I walk, but I walk very differently to anybody else. I went through all my life as a child, up until the age of 9 or 10, ignorant of my disability. I was a bright child at the age of 11. I was top of the class and everything. Then I started getting bullied by some girls who started mimicking my walk and made my life very uncomfortable. I just became very withdrawn. I went from top of the class to average, less than average, quite mediocre.
There’s a huge cultural divide in understanding disability. I wrote a book about my experience, which seemed to strike a chord with Indian and Pakistani people who had disabled children in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I get weekly emails and messages on social media from people saying, ‘I’ve read your book, and I’m so glad that someone out there has actually written about what I’m going through, and it gives me hope’.
I had a secret relationship with depression for decades. Nobody knew this, not even my wife, but for 30 years I was in secret therapy. In the band, I was so popular on stage. And when that ended, then I became nobody. As a disabled person, I said, ‘well, what have I got left in life?’
I nearly walked in front of a bus. I say it openly, there was one moment where I nearly walked in front of a bus because I thought, that’s it, I’m ready to go, there’s nothing left for me. But I saw my wife walking across the road with my three little children and it stopped me and I thought, I’ve got to live for them, they are what I’m about now, it’s not about me anymore, I’ve got to live for them. So that’s when I took a training programme with Disability Direct.
Don’t rely on grant income. One of the things that I saw right back in 2004 (and by that time I’d already been with the charity 10 years). I thought, well, I’m getting lots of lottery grants, and foundations are throwing money at us, and that’s great. But all it takes is for a shift in opinion or a government agenda to move. So that’s when we started businesses as revenue streams. Our first business was a payroll service for disabled people who employ carers. Today, 97% of our income comes from our businesses.
Dictate your own destiny. A lot of charities go where the funding is rather than where their need is. We don’t have that problem because we go where our need is and then if any extra funding comes in, it’s cherry on the cake, rather than the cake itself. I don’t like the idea that I have to go and forge relationships with people who have got everyone knocking on their door. I say instead, ‘okay, you guys carry on, this charity’s got its own its own way of doing things’.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.