Go for it!

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Lots of help is available for planning exciting holidays, says Phil Revell

More than one million young people in Britain have special needs. Many will have special education provision either in a special school or a mainstream setting, but what about the out of school experiences, the trips, courses and holidays that most children take for granted? Out of school, there is a risk that children with special needs will miss out, which is where well-informed teachers can really help parents to make a difference.

"For special needs children the partnership between home and school is even more important," says Barbara Berryman, head of the Marshfields school in Peterborough. "There has to be a real joining together."

As a first step she recommends the charity Contact a Family, which will put families in touch with other parents whose child shares the same condition or special need.

The first benefit is often an escape from the feelings of helplessness and isolation suffered by many families. All parents experience the feeling of failure when something goes wrong, but for most there are friends with children of the same age or development to discuss things with and re-establish some perspective. For parents of children with special needs - whether caused by disability, learning difficulty or long-term illness - getting things into perspective can be well-nigh impossible.

"Families are incredibly isolated," says Barbara. The opportunity to meet other children with the same special need is invaluable, she argues, for both parent and child. But there is also the need to continue the child's education and development.

"We're too focused on the disability," she says. She cites the example of a sight-impaired child whose GCSE art work has just been displayed in her schol. "Too often we make assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We should be giving them opportunities to try out as many things as possible."

One route to success and self-confidence can be through sport. Marshfields encourages children to sign up for the sports schemes that are organised in the Peterborough area. Basketball, tennis and rugby can all be played by wheelchair-bound athletes and to watch a wheelchair basketball game is to realise that the words disabled and wheelchair-bound are entirely inappropriate.

But, for many families, something as normal as play can be problematic. While after-school clubs have mushroomed and childcare for working mums has expanded there has not been a corresponding increase in opportunities for disabled children.

"If anything, our evidence is that there has been a drying up of provision," says Lesley Campbell from MENCAP. The charity tries to fill the gap. It organises 200 holiday playschemes across the United Kingdom, some residential. In Caerphilly this summer there will be a tie-in with the local arts centre to offer programmes to local children.

"It's a way of making the provision more inclusive," says Lesley, but she would like local authority schemes to follow suit. Last year Birmingham's 200-plus playschemes catered for more than 12,000 children over the summer holidays, with many schemes focusing on the special needs of the children attending. The charity Kids Club Network, which promotes and organises childcare (tel: 020 7512 2112), says that nationally there are summer playscheme places available for just 3 per cent of four to 14-year-olds. For this year parents could check their local provision during Playweek (first week in August) when every local authority should be focusing on holiday childcare.

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