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Playing to an inclusive audience

Capability Scotland is helping children with special support needs have more fun by befriending them and educating activities clubs, reports Karen Shead

Scott Allan is like any other 13-year-old. He loves playing pool and basketball, enjoys using computers and Playstations, singing karaoke and he likes to spend time with his friends.

Every week he goes to an after-school club to enjoy these activities but this is something he has only been able to do for the past few months.

Scott, who attends Westerlea School in Edinburgh, has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning difficulties and uses a wheelchair. Like many other children with special needs, he found it hard to find an activities club where he can go. Although many clubs accept children with special needs, many are ill-equipped - either through lack of experienced staff or facilities - to let them participate.

This issue has been highlighted in a report by the charity Capability Scotland published in June. Nobody Wants to Play with Me reports that many families still feel they lack choices over childcare, employment and lifestyle and that children resent the lack of access to leisure facilities and feel frustrated about not being able to go out unaccompanied. The problem has been recognised by the charity for a while and spurred it to launch the Inclusive Leisure pilot project.

Mark Bevan, development officer for children and young people's services at Capability Scotland, says: "As an organisation we aim to give the children the same opportunities and activities that other kids have. One of the growing gaps for children with additional needs is play. They are not getting out and doing ordinary things on their doorstep like other kids.

"We noticed that although some organisations were willing to include children with special needs in their programme, they didn't have the skills or confidence to do this. We tried to work out how we could change this and we came up with the idea of having a leisure activity support worker."

An experienced support worker would be matched up with a child and help them to get involved in leisure activities, he explains. Initially the support worker would work directly with the child in their home, getting to know them and their family, addressing any concerns or need for advice, building up a relationship of confidence and trust with them all. The support worker would find out about suitable clubs and then take the child along and help the staff by sharing expertise about the child's special needs.

"The idea is that the amount of dependency the young person has on the support worker would gradually reduce," Mr Bevan says. "The person would build skills, knowledge and confidence until eventually he or she would be able to go along to the club on their own."

The project received pound;20,000 from Edinburgh City Council and in November Capability Scotland began to put its ideas into practice. Initial work was carried out through the Edinburgh Childcare Partnership and the City of Edinburgh Council's pupil support and community education departments to find eligible children, while Edinburgh Leisure (which manages recreational facilities for the council) and youth workers created a database of clubs and services in the city. Various other agencies also were involved in planning the project, including the disability organisation FABB (formerly PHAB) Scotland, Queen Margaret College and Edinburgh University's Centre for Physical Education, Sports and Leisure Studies.

Ten children's names were put forward and four were chosen to take part in the pilot. Project leader Eric Mitchell says the feedback has been positive. "There has been a huge change in the young people. Some of the parents and carers say it has changed the whole aspect of family life."

Scott goes once a week to The House, a purpose-built drop-in centre for 11- to 14-year-olds at Meadowbank Stadium, which was set up by Edinburgh Leisure last October.

His mother is grateful for his involvement in the Inclusive Leisure project. "Scott didn't have contact with anything outside school other than his family before taking part in this. He has so much more self-confidence now and a great feeling of self worth outwith the home," says Ann Allen.

"He is able to do things he sees other children doing which up until now he was unable to get involved in.

"When he comes back from the club he is on a high. He tells me about all his friends and really enjoys it. He is a lot happier."

Mrs Allan says the support worker gave her the confidence to know Scott would be well looked after.

"A visit was organised by someone who would be meeting him and take him to an after-school club. They got to know him and learned about his disability.

"It's great for me knowing that he already has a relationship with the person he is with and it's good that I have built up a relationship with the person as well. There are open lines of communication and if any questions or problems come up we can deal with them.

"She told Scott where they were going and said he didn't have to join in if he didn't want to. It was all about him having the right to choose, which was great.

"He has been able to meet so many other children on a one to one basis. He chooses which activities he wants to do and it is great for him to have a choice.

"He loves doing activities with other children. He is quite limited as to what he can do himself and he needs help to access a lot of things.

"This has given him the confidence to try new things. He has someone there to support him and who will also push him to do new things, which is good, but they do not take over from him. It's good that they are making him try more; if he thinks someone will do it for him he is quite happy to let them do it."

Like many other parents of children with special needs, Mrs Allan previously had difficulty finding activities for her son to do."There aren't many activities available. I've tried so many times to find things, and it's just like coming up against a brick wall. So it is great he can now do something outwith school."

One of the other benefits of the project is that the service providers gain increasing awareness about inclusion and how to help all children mix and have fun. Mr Mitchell says: "What the project does is identify areas where the staff need to be made more aware. For example, because Scott has epilepsy, staff at The House were given more training on that."

When the child has gained the confidence to attend the club or activity on his or her own, the support worker will move on to including another child in the project. By this point, staff at the club will be familiar with the young person and able to cope with his needs. An information pack about the child is kept at the club for the benefit of the staff and volunteers.

Now that Scott is confident about the club, contact with his support worker will soon end, but Capability Scotland is trying to match him with a volunteer befriender who can help him get to and from the club.

The charity is keen to expand the project. There has been interest from families outwith the city centre and other authorities.

"There's a big family and social impact from this project," says Ms Bevan.

"The children are developing to their full potential, the leisure providers are developing their services and families are also benefiting from it. It doesn't cost a lot of money but the outcomes are clear."

Mr Mitchell says: "I say, as long as there is a smile on the young person's face, then you know you are doing something right."

The project just needs to secure funding.

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