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The story of Tom Dowling is one which could fill a book, let alone be told in one feature article on a website.
Not just of his life, and the battle he has had to overcome, but also how he has turned that fight into a force for good, via the long-running newspaper which he produces to help the huge numbers of people affected by disability and ill health.
As mentioned, it is an incredible story, which can be viewed by clicking here to watch a video.
In summary, Tom was 20 years-old and on a road trip with friends to Mount Everest when they were attacked by bandits in Iran.
One of Tom’s friends was shot in the head, but somehow survived, but another bullet smashed throughTom’s back and severed his spinal cord.
A life-changing injury from a harrowing ordeal which left him paralysed from the chest down and wheelchair-bound for life.
Yet, as he explains, he was able eventually to emerge positively from the whole incident, and show that All Together Now – supported over the last ten years by the Steve Morgan Foundation – was already well and truly established before its namesake appeared as a singing contest on BBC One on Saturday evenings.
Tom takes up the story of the origins of the newspaper, all those years ago.
“Before the trip to Everest, I had just finished my training as a young reporter, and had the world quite literally at my feet, playing football and trying to forge a career,” he says.
“This all happened and suddenly I found myself isolated, and stuck at home
“So many people wanted to help me, and the Liverpool Echo were great in giving me an opportunity to get back into journalism.
“But while I was mixing with all these different people between 8am and 4pm, or whatever the hours were, as soon as I got home, and my front door closed, that was it.
“In the 1970s there weren’t really such things as access ramps or dropped kerbs – if you were in a wheelchair it was actually very difficult to get in and out of anywhere and so you couldn’t really get out and about to contribute in the community.
“All houses had steps – my house had a huge step at the front and so my Dad built a ramp, but even that was far too steep for me to get in and out of on my own.
“Even if was helped out, all my friends’ and family’s houses had steps so I couldn’t independently go and see someone, and for a couple of years or so it was a very odd situation to be in.
“My car was adapted, so at weekends my Dad would help get me out of the house and into the car, and I would drive all over North Wales, but without really being able to get out of the car and see anything.
“To an extent it was very lonely, and it didn’t take me long to realise that there would be countless of other people and families in the same situation, perhaps even without the level of support I was receiving.
“And I knew how my parents and my brothers were feeling – inadequate and frustrated that there wasn’t anything else they could do to help me.
“Working on the Echo at the time made me realise that there was nothing in any of the newspapers that recognised this situation or offered helpful information surrounding disabilities that probably affected one in four families.
“There were newsletters for specific disabilities, often subscription-based, but nowhere near broad enough for people to gain an idea of perhaps education facilities or holidays or activities which could be available to them.
“I persuaded the Echo to let me start a column about disability, and I knew it needed to be bright and positive and reader-friendly to feature in a regional newspaper, not become a ghetto for marginalised people!
“At that time disability wasn’t the most popular thing to talk about, but the Echo were fantastic in giving me that backing, and trying to tell people how they could pick up the pieces of their lives whether via information or passing on the right contacts.
“We called it I Can Do That, the catchphrase of Yosser Hughes from Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From the Black Stuff, and the page became very popular.
“I Can Do That was also a title which we hoped would bring in non-disabled readers as well, as the column was also about how they too could help and work with the disabled and vulnerable.
“The analogy I often use is that if you can provide a child with a wheelchair that is fantastic, and they can get themselves out and about and around the block.
“But if you can also present to a child or their parents further information, and the additional opportunities that they may be able to do in that wheelchair, then the world is their oyster.
“And so, the newspaper works on all sorts of different levels.”
The column is still running in the Echo, still put together by Tom, 34 years on, and it remains the longest running column of any kind in the newspaper.
But, as illustrated by the arrival of All Together Now in its present guise in 2004, there have been plenty of changes in between.
It was in 1983 that the initial newspaper column began, and then, in 1997, it became its own standalone published by the Echo as part of a move into the area of supplements to beef up its profits.
Produced bi-monthly, 20,000 copies were circulated and it was sold across Merseyside, up until 2004 when the newspaper’s new owners Trinity Mirror issued an edict whereby all standalone publications were required to produce a healthy return on investment.
‘I can do that’ couldn’t meet that criteria, and it was forced to close, leaving Tom with an awkward dilemma.
“Once again the Echo were great and offered me the opportunity to back to my previous job as a Sub Editor,” he explains.
“But the numbers of letters I had received about the supplement, the number of people whose hopes had been built up by a regular supply of news that had never had access to before, made it a very difficult decision to leave behind.
“At the stage I was 50, and had three boys, twins of 12 and the third aged 14.
“Should I carry on and take the offer from the Echo, or should I leave and relaunch the paper?
“It quickly dawned on me that if a big company such as Trinity Mirror couldn’t make it work commercially, how could I, just as reporter and sub-editor without any experience of sales and production?
“The only option would be to try and get charitable status – I felt that strongly about the need for this service that I decided to take the risk, and go for it!”
There was certainly some trepidation on Tom’s part as he set about the task of launching, and self-funding, the newspaper.
“Here I was, just a little guy in a wheelchair, trying to raise a couple of hundred thousand quid,” he says with a laugh.
But, as just reward for such drive and determination, fortune was on his side.
The Regional Development Agency in the North West were aiming to regenerate the region and had launched a funding scheme for charities setting up websites to increase the uptake of broadband.
Tom applied for a grant of £90,000, hoping to then get two or three editions out online which would serve as a blueprint to take to organisations with a view to attracting further investment to expand into print.
But then, what he describes as a ‘trickle’ effect took hold, with a couple of adverts, couple of sponsors…and then Steve Morgan!
“The Steve Morgan Foundation has been so helpful to us with their funding and assistance, almost right from the start,” he says.
“A lot of grant funders can be very bureaucratic – they will want to know how you are going to spend their money and there is nothing wrong with that.
“It is very easy to substantiate if it is going towards a wheelchair for a disabled child, or a piece of vital equipment, but less so for a newspaper.
“A lot of funders find it difficult to grasp how a newspaper can have a positive impact on people’s lives.
“How could we show the evidence that, as a direct result of our information, people have taken up wheelchair basketball or other such activities?
“That is why we have been so ‘made up’ with the Steve Morgan Foundation.
“They understood where we were coming from straight away, and could see what we were doing, helping people by providing vital information.
“As well as their initial investment and other support, they also provided us with a Smiley Van on our tenth anniversary which has proved a major help with distributing the paper.”
Whilst hugely appreciative for the support of the Steve Morgan Foundation and other similar funders including utility companies who can use their space to pass on equally important information, there is still the need for additional help if All Together Now is to continue to develop.
At present, some 100,000 copies are distributed over an eight week cycle mainly to supermarkets, hospitals and visitor attractions across Merseyside, Greater Manchester, and parts of Cheshire, and, thanks to funding secured before Christmas, this figure is to rise to 140,000.
For Tom, the challenge is about improving and extending the current distribution, whilst also safeguarding the newspaper’s future.
“There is so much going on that our readers need to know about,” he added.
“We have been going now for 14 years and, as a free newspaper, the only income we receive is through advertising – which is difficult to secure – and from sponsorship or grants such as the Steve Morgan Foundation.
“It is all about hanging on in there even though we are absolutely paddling away madly underneath the surface of the water!
“We have to try and stay in there until hopefully the penny drops and more organisations and funders see that they could be using us to help spread this vital information.
“We know there is a demand for the paper, and the positive feedback we receive is phenomenal.
“At a time when newspapers are generally struggling, it has proved the opposite for us.
“The content is so valuable that even with the internet – and we also publish online – there will always be a need to have all that information in one place in print form.
“My fear now, and what I have to focus on, is making sure that the paper is still here if anything happens to me and that it won’t flounder.
“With that in mind there is an ongoing issue about attracting more funding, and developing and bolstering the organisation for the future, but also remaining hugely grateful and appreciative for the support we already receive.
“I hesitate to use the word unique, but that’s what we have – a free charity newspaper that is focusing exclusively on vulnerable people and those with disabilities, which could actually be read by up to half a million people. That’s something we would really like to preserve.”
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