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Bringing access to all areas

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 12 Mar 2024

From his successful finance career to a host of senior roles at charities for the disabled, Gordon Richardson has always had accessibility in mind – which has led to the award of an MBE.

Gordon Richardson was just three years old when he contracted polio in 1956. The disease left him paralysed from the shoulders down, with only limited use of his arms.

This has never held him back, instead fuelling his support for a host of causes – one of which has led him to be recognised with an MBE in the latest New Year Honours for services to disability access. He also built a successful career in finance, stemming from a keen childhood interest.

“My father was in banking and worked in the Far East,” Richardson explains. “So I’d always been interested in finance, especially stocks and shares. At boarding school, I was the only pupil in a wheelchair and no one knew what to do with me. But when I was 11, I bought my first shares – in my grandmother’s name, but with my own cash.”

When he was 17, Richardson borrowed “quite a lot of money” from his father for another shares venture. At first, it didn’t go smoothly. “The shares were suspended for a year,” he says. “But when they came back on, they were worth 10 times the asking price. I paid dad back. A new car appeared. At 18, I felt like I was rolling in it.”

Fork in the road

Richardson chose to study accounting. At the time, only five UK universities offered the subject and were dealing with hundreds of applications for each place, but he was determined to land a spot. “The whole process of getting through boarding school gave me lots of confidence,” he says. “When I applied, I was worried only that I might get rejected for not being clever enough, not because I was in a wheelchair.”

He did his articles with Thomson McLintock, later part of KPMG, and worked at the firm for a decade. He was then personally invited by Peter Hargreaves to join a small firm just down the road, Hargreaves Lansdown. But after 18 years there, he arrived at a fork in the road: “Doctors told me in my late teens that, because of my health, I was unlikely to live much past the age of 50. So, when I was made redundant at that very age, I decided, ‘Right – I’m going to stop work. Now, I shall give back and support charities for the disabled.’”

Access all areas

His first project was on a large scale. Joining a group of trustees, he helped to organise the purchase of a Second World War-era, ex-government building in Bristol that had been set up as an evacuation hospital for US troops, but never used. The Vassall Centre was born.

“We redeveloped the facility so that charities dealing with disability issues could employ disabled people as staff and work in a fully accessible building,” Richardson says. “You could unlock in the morning, adjust the heating, make coffee and tea, access every desk and use the filing system as required. It was 50,000 sq ft. At one point, we had 20 different charities working there.”

The Vassall Centre Trust received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and Richardson rose from Treasurer to Vice Chair and then Chairman. After nine years of service in that role, he moved to the Bristol Disability Equality Forum: “The whole ethos of the Forum was that if you improve access on roads and pavements, you make things better for everyone, not just wheelchair users.”

Tangible results

Richardson says that, after nine years, he has “desperately tried to stand down” from co-chairing the Forum. He’s eager for fresh blood and ideas to bubble to the top. That said, he is not averse to manning other, senior charity roles.

Indeed, he also now chairs the British Polio Fellowship at national level, while serving as its Regional Treasurer and Branch Chairman. On top of that, he serves as Treasurer for both the Bristol West Diabetes Support Network and the Bristol Walking Alliance. It was his work for the latter that garnered his MBE, for services to disability access.

“It’s a very good and lively group,” Richardson says. “They asked me to join to provide disability awareness expertise. So we look at every aspect of the pedestrian environment and battle for things like stopping pavement parking so that wheelchairs and prams are not obstructed.”

His campaigning has achieved particular results in Bristol’s public transport system. Until recently, Bristol’s buses each had just one wheelchair bay, so that at busy times, wheelchair users would just have to wait till the next bus came along if the space was already taken up.

“I went to a local talk and the CEO of Bristol’s bus company was there,” Richardson says. “We ended up meeting for breakfast and I explained why it was important for the buses to have two wheelchair bays.” The CEO rang Richardson the next day and told him he had ordered six double-bay buses for Bristol’s fleet. Now, there are 170.

“I’ve never been one for chaining myself to railings and so on. I’d much rather quietly talk to the people who make the decisions and gently persuade them,” Richardson notes.

He believes his accountancy training supports this side of his work. “It’s about listening to the nature of the problem before you, hearing out your client, finding out what they want and presenting the facts,” he says. “In the third sector, profit tends to be a dirty word. But it shouldn’t be. It’s what allows you to continue to do your work. If you’re asking someone to do something that’s going to cost them money, you have to justify it.”

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