Gerald Haigh looks at a project and training pack which pushes wheelchair users towards self-reliance
David Sollis, project manager of the charity Whizz-Kidz, stood in the Mobility Roadshow at Donington Park in Derbyshire last summer, gestured around him and said: "There are children here who are being pushed around in wheelchairs by their parents when they should be getting around on their own."
At first, it seems quite a shocking thing to say - then you realise that the reaction itself is part of the problem. The desire to protect our children is very strong, so that a wheelchair, which is actually a means of independence, can become something to sit in and be passively pushed around.
The Whizz-Kidz vision, by contrast, is of a young person who comes out of the house alone in a wheelchair, scoots down to the shop, crosses the road to a friend's house and then goes along with the gang to school. It's not, you might think, a vaulting ambition, and yet how often have you seen it happen?
The answer lies in giving young wheelchair users (and their parents and carers) the confidence that comes from training in wheelchair skills - moving around obstacles, starting and stopping, opening doors, going up kerbs, dealing with traffic.
It was that sort of learning that I saw in action on a Whizz-Kidz training session last month at Manor School in Northamptonshire. About half a dozen children and young people were involved, of both primary and secondary ages, and users of a number of different kinds of manual and powered chairs. Working with them was about the same number of trainers and volunteer helpers - including a teaching assistant at Manor, Mike Santoro, who's a wheelchair user working hard to become a fully-fledged trainer.
"When I became a wheelchair user as a child I was just given a chair and told to get on with it," he says.
The group moved from the dining room to the sports hall and then outside, first to the school grounds and then to the road. Skill training included slaloms, back wheel balancing (for dealing with kerbs) and picking things up from the floor. Outside was road crossing, dealing with various pavement surfaces, and getting up and down the kerb.
At least as important as the skills practice is the increasing confidence that comes from being able to do new things, and the experience of being with other wheelchair users in a common cause.
"It was just good to be with people like us - a good laugh," was how 15-year-old Katherine Lewis put it.
What I saw was a demonstration of what's possible with the training pack, Keep on Moving, developed by Whizz-Kidz. The intention is that interested groups - schools, groups of parents, volunteers - will use the pack to set up their own training groups, perhaps with some initial input from Whizz-Kidz trainers if it's wanted.
The pack centres on a CD which contains the co-ordinator's handbook, the trainer's pack and a road safety pack. There's also a set of 18 full-colour A4 teaching cards (which are also available from the CD), a set of student logbooks and a video showing the training in action.
There's heavy emphasis on activities and games. So the teaching card called "Fishing" is about leaning safely over to pick up objects from the floor or from tables and other surfaces. "Treasure Hunt", one of the more advanced tasks in the Road Safety section, sets participants to follow a set of clues which are answered by visiting various places on a previously risk assessed route around the neighbourhood.
The aim, says David Sollis, is for the pack to be the core resource for what will be self-contained community training groups, using volunteers as much as possible, and in productive contact with as many local statutory and voluntary organisations as can be called on to help. Whizz-Kidz themselves can be there to lend a hand at the start, or to evaluate what's happening later, but they can't do the whole training job - the group has to be independent, working in a way that suits its own community. To this end, the co-ordinator's handbook in the pack includes details about setting up a course - finding a venue, recruiting volunteers, insurance issues, links with parents and the community.
"There isn't just one way of doing it," David says. "We want it to be a community effort. Some will just say, 'Send us some T-shirts and we'll get on with it.' Others will want more support than that."
When the training was piloted in several venues in 20023 it was delivered over five or six Saturdays, with each session split into three, covering pre-school, junior and secondary age groups. That's not the only possible model, but the hope is that it will be spread out rather than become concentrated so that the group can see it as a regular enjoyable activity.
"It can be a social club, a sports club, whatever you want it to be," says David.
Just watching the taster day at Manor School brought home the conviction that a school is the ideal home for a "Keep on Moving" course. The environment is familiar to the children, even if it's not their own school, and there's a range of suitable spaces inside and out. I found it easy to visualise how a school that has some wheelchair users could work with parents, volunteers and other agencies to run a course of its own. It would be a real forward step in its integration policy. Not only would the children become more confident and skilful, but adults in the school who were doubtful of how to deal with young wheelchair users would become much more aware, without having to ask, of their abilities and needs.
David Sollis describes a session in which some teachers were asked to take part in the training, in chairs. "Right from the start they couldn't even get through the doors," he says.
Cathy Hancock, a wheelchair user and a trainer, believes that children who use wheelchairs are sometimes overprotected by their teachers. "They get told off for doing back wheel balancing," she says.
"I want to empower them to go round their school with heads held high."
Katherine Lewis agreed: "They do tend to treat us as if we're fragile," she said.
Whizz-Kidz, Elliot House, 10 - 12 Allington Street, London SW1E 5EH www.whizz-kidz.org.uk
* Whizz-Kidz facts
* Whizz-Kidz is a charity that provides customised wheelchairs and tricycles to children, in cases where NHS provision is unavailable or insufficient. The training initiative started because the mission of the organisation is to do with mobility and independence rather than only with the supply of equipment.
"Keep on Moving" is lottery funded for three years and the aim is to use the money to promote the training pack and to provide advice, support and evaluation to what will become a network of self-sufficient training groups.
The pack costs pound;180. The intention is to keep other costs down - hall hire, refreshments, expenses for trainers - by using volunteers and existing services. The pack has lots of advice about doing this.