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Tinder loving care: Paralympian with cerebral palsy matches NI elderly and people with disabilities to right professionals


Warrenpoint man Austen Burns

Warrenpoint man Austen Burns

Warrenpoint man Austen Burns

Austen Burns laughingly calls his online help service for the disabled and the elderly Tinder for Carers, as he matches people in need with the professionals they require to assist them.

The 30-year-old Warrenpoint man who has cerebral palsy knows from personal experience all about the difficulties of accessing the right care and he's using his IT skills to pioneer his new online facility which has already given support to hundreds of people.

Friends say that Austen, whose restricted mobility sees him using a walking frame, has never wilted under his disability and his indomitable spirit has led him to become a champion horse rider who's been part of the Irish Paralympic equestrian squad.

His love of horses goes back to his early years in Canada where he lived near Vancouver with his Co Down-born parents, who organised for him to attend equestrian sessions after being told by a physiotherapist they could help build his muscle tone and improve his physical strength.

And after the Burns family returned to Northern Ireland when Austen was six years old, he enlisted with Riding for The Disabled (RDA) in Newry to continue the therapy but he was so skilful as a horseman that he went on to become an accomplished dressage rider, winning trophies across the British Isles.

Austen also showed an early flair for, and interest in, IT.

He says: "I was always tinkering with computers and going online to explore the internet as a way of connecting with the world and I found that I had a flair for developing websites."

He says he was lucky that his disability didn't stop him attending mainstream schools where he decided to take his computer skills to the next level.

Austen moved in 2009 to Belfast to study computers at Queen's University and it was there he realised just hard it was to locate the right care.

"When I was at uni I found it was difficult to access the support that I needed in Belfast. I eventually did find it but it was quite obvious that other people weren't able to source what they needed to live away from home," he recalls.

Austen gained a degree in computers at Queen's and later studied for a master's degree in marketing at Ulster University, Jordanstown.

After he graduated, Austen continued to live in Belfast where he found work in IT while at the same time using his downtime to enhance his equestrian skills with the RDA centre in Newtownards that he'd been attending.

His competitive edge flourished and he won a number of cups in RDA championships before he was also invited to join the Irish Paralympic Equestrian Development Squad with one of his own horses but the onslaught of the coronavirus changed everything for him on a number of levels.

He returned to Warrenpoint to live in March with his parents while continuing to work from home where he also pushed ahead with the website he set up to assist disabled people and the elderly to find experienced carers in their own areas.

Austen says the thinking behind the site was to give people the ability to search for carers with the particular skills they needed to suit them.

Adds Austen: "It's a bit like the methods they use on dating sites. And I sometimes refer to my site as 'Tinder for carers.' People can click on and find the carers they need using filters like postcodes; whether or not they have a driving licence and what experience they have."

In Northern Ireland over 80 per cent of care is funded by local health authorities who have allocated direct payments or budgets to disabled people and the elderly so that they find their own carers.

"I wanted to create a website to give people more choice and control over the care they receive," he adds.

So far almost 1,000 people have availed of Austen's site which won a 2019 Catalyst Invent Award and has 1,200 registered carers to provide support.

"It's also giving carers opportunities to find work and to earn more than they would if they were going through agencies. Being matched with someone on the website is in some ways cutting out the middle man," he reveals.

During the first Covid-19 lockdown he found that people were reluctant to let new carers into their homes but after restrictions were eased there was a noticeable rise in the use of the app.

At the minute Austen's facility is a free service which produces an introductory platform of available carers through a search facility.

But he admits: "I suspect it mightn't be free for ever. We've been fortunate enough to receive funding in the short term but we may eventually have to bring in a subscription charge to cover the costs.

"While I handle the technical side of the operation we have two other people who do the marketing and recruiting."

Austen's full-time job is providing IT and communications for the Centre for Independent Living who help disabled people in Northern Ireland to get work, to have equal opportunities and to live independently.

Last year during a visit to South East Asia, he met officials from a similar centre in Phnom Pehn in Cambodia.


Austen Burns Visit to The Centre For Independent Living in Cambodia

Austen Burns Visit to The Centre For Independent Living in Cambodia

Austen Burns Visit to The Centre For Independent Living in Cambodia

"It was an amazing experience," says Austen. "I was able to see first-hand the reality of being disabled in Cambodia and some of the issues that arose included accessible transport, housing and employment."

In the last year Austen's horse riding activities have been severely limited by Covid-19.

But he's hoping that things will return to normal this year and that he'll be able to get back in the saddle more often with thoughts turning to possibly taking part in the Paralympics in the future.

Austen has also thrown his support behind a new charity, One Equine Trust who are trying to promote the benefits of horse riding for people with physical and mental disabilities.

"What they are doing in trying to raise awareness of what involvement with horses can do is fantastic," he tells me. "Many horses have a special understanding and adapt to the needs of people like me. My involvement with horse riding has been brilliant in many ways, including from a physical point of view, which has improved my muscle tone and core strength, balance and co-ordination but it's been great from a social element too."

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