Fulfilling their pipe dreams

15th June 2007 at 01:00
When it comes to outdoor activities, equal opportunities often don't extend to children with disabilities

STEWART HUTCHEON huddles his team-mates round him and takes command like one of football's seasoned professionals. Together they talk tactics, briefly explore strategies - they're confident and decisive and they know what they're going to do.

This is the Kielder Challenge, a unique outdoor competition. And throughout the summer term, hundreds of pupils have been taking part in testing activities at country parks all over the UK. The games are demanding and pupils will be judged on planning, teamwork and performance.

In today's heats in glorious sunshine in Aberdeen, the team from Oldmachar Academy is giving an impressive performance. The event involves pupils work-ing in teams of eight, with an equal mix of youngsters with and without physical, sensory or learning disabilities. The top 12 teams win through to a place in the final in September.

Fourteen-year-old Stewart's team has finished an outdoor snakes and ladders-style challenge and is about to move on to the next event. It involves transporting balls from one set of buckets to another some distance away with the aid of long half-pipes, but without moving with the balls and with certain areas out of bounds.

The eight boys and girls talk about how they performed in the previous game under the watchful eye of a scorer: "It wasn't easy; we didn't finish,"

says Conor Smith, 13. Team-mate Neil Tough agrees: "It was hard to understand. There were a lot of do's and don'ts."

These teenagers have cracked the next challenge though, and as soon as the game is explain-ed, Stewart is leading a brainstorm of ideas, consulting his team and asking what they think. So what's the secret to winning? "Team work and communication," they chorus.

Jane Turner, a teacher for special educational needs at Oldmachar Academy, says: "Last year, I had to persuade youngsters to come. But they enjoyed it so much and told so many people that this year I had to hold try-outs and had to reject twice as many as I have here."

There are four youngsters with a diagnosed syndrome or difficulty and four from mainstream in each of her two teams. "They boost their self-esteem by taking part in something and representing their school. Some of the youngsters with difficulties would never imagine they would be chosen to represent their school," She says.

"So they have been selected out of numerous children to take part and that is a real boost for them. But also they develop the skills of working together in a team, they get to know other youngsters, so that means they have got a bigger social group and older and younger pupils, so they are mixing across the year groups."

Jim Wainwright, project officer for the Fieldfare Trust, says the challenge has been a milestone in the lives of many youngsters over the years, enabling non-disabled and disabled youngsters to mix in outdoor activities.

"We wanted to make sure that non-disabled kids understood that disabled children had the ability to organise and be part of a team, the same as anybody else."

Ian Newman, Fieldfare's chief executive, founded the charity and set up the Kielder Challenge in the late 1980s. Today's event is one of many held throughout the year.

"It was obvious disabled people weren't getting anything like equal opportunities," he says.

"There are lessons to be learned for the able-bodied kids, like they expect to come in and do it all for the others. But actually, the others are the ones who face problems day in, day out, and they're often better at solving problems, because they're used to it. So everyone has something to contribute."

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