A centre that likes to say 'yes'

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Wesley Relf is about to abseil down a 30ft, almost sheer, drop backwards. It's not easy - and it's made more difficult for Wesley because he is in a wheelchair.

However, he looks less perturbed than some of the onlookers. On the way down he smiles confidently to those at the top. Later, he talks about the experience with his friends. Contrary to all appearances, he was frightened. "It was so high. But I'll give anything a try", he says.

Wesley, aged 18, goes to Lord Mayor Treloar College in Hampshire, an independent FE college for physically disabled students. With a group from the college, he is on a week-long visit to the Calvert Trust's Exmoor centre where he will also try archery, canoeing, swimming, riding and other challenging activities.

The Calvert Trust is a charity which provides holidays for families with disabled children, school parties and elderly people. Its three centres are in some of England's most beautiful areas: Exmoor, the Lake District and Northumberland. It is dedicated to providing adventure and physical challenges for people for whom these things are normally out of reach.

While Wesley's group is abseiling, a group of year 9 and 10 pupils from Futchers special school in Portsmouth are canoeing on the nearby reservoir.Like Lord Mayor Treloar, Futchers caters for a wide ability range including many children with learning disabilities. Theirs is a big group: 24 pupils in all. Some are in two-person canoes while others are manning a "catamaran" formed by lashing two canoes together. They are accompanied by school or centre staff. A safety boat circles the canoes.

Soon a water fight starts up between the crews of the two catamarans. Some children react immediately with glee while others take longer to realise that this might be fun. Young people and children with special needs often lead very sheltered lives and are protected from the elements and the environment. Even little things like getting wet in the rain or in a water fight can be beyond their experience.

Lord Mayor Treloar's visit -the second for the school - is also run as part of the curriculum. Two social skills themes are being explored: "working together" and "making choices". "By the end of the week last year we saw quite a few changes," says teacher Jo Goddard. "Students were working together and co-operating much more effectively".

The Exmoor centre is based round a refurbished farmhouse, which surrounds a landscaped courtyard. Nearby are the riding school, housed in a huge barn, the climbing wall and a reservoir, which the centre can use for water sports.

Most of the bedrooms are round the courtyard and are designed for comfort and independence. They have ensuite bathrooms and a whole range of facilities for many kinds of disability: lights next to the switches for the sight impaired and specially designed rails, for example.

For outdoor activities too, the centre has an astonishingly wide range of equipment, including hoists to lower children into boats and pulleys to allow people to abseil in wheelchairs. "We aim for as unfettered an experience as possible," says instructor Sean Hewlett and to this end they are always on the look-out for new equipment. Soon, for example, they hope to have a newly-designed paddle for canoeists who don't have use of both arms, and a harness which enables quite severely disabled people to abseil without their wheelchairs.

"Have a go! sums up our philosophy. We want to say 'yes' because people with disabilities live with 'no' all the time," he adds. "You impoverish people if you don't give them the right to take risks."

Safety, however, is, paramount. Children and young people are never put in danger, but they do have the opportunity to overcome some fear and rise to physical challenges. Staff are all trained in at least two activities.

Apart from enabling people to do the activity, the aim is to allow them as much control over the experience as possible. So, like learner drivers in a dual-control car, abseilers can regulate their speed of descent with the aid of a rope, but someone is always on hand to take over should things go wrong.

During the week, the Futchers and Lord Mayor Treloar students have a go at two activities a day, including riding in the huge barn, or in the pony and traps which take wheelchairs; they can also swim and try archery. Bird-watching, sailing and orienteering are other possible options. Parties usually have one day off to go on a trip - or to relax.

Ivano Ricci, a teacher at Futchers, brought a party of children last year."Teachers have to work hard," he says, "but it is very rewarding. We see pupils gain a huge sense of achievement. Moreover, it's a chance for children to socialise with each other, which is important as we are a school with a large catchment area, so they may live a distance from their friends. Altogether they get so much from it."

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