Children with disabilities can try a wide range of sports thanks to a pioneering scheme, reports Karen Shead
"Children with disabilities should have the same opportunities as able-bodied children," says Charlie Forbes, sports development officer for Inverness.
"We want to help them achieve their dreams and if they want to practise a sport at an athletic level, they should have the opportunity to do so," he says, discussing plans to set up sports groups and clubs for physically disabled youngsters in the Highlands and Islands.
And one step he has taken to get children more involved in sport has been organising a summer school at Drummond School in Inverness, for the past three weeks.
Open to those over the age of 10 who have a physical, learning or sensory disability, the multi-sports days include a variety of activities from golf to rounders. And for those who aren't so keen to get involved, they can simply watch other members of the group and cheer them on with words of encouragement.
These moves coincide with the report from Capability Scotland earlier this month, Nobody Ever Wants To Play With Me, which highlighted the lack of childcare, holiday and after-school activities for disabled children. Among its recommendations was access for all disabled children to council-run or funded leisure facilities or schemes, with enough trained staff to turn that aim into reality.
Mr Forbes says he hopes the Inverness approach of multi-sports days will take off. "I'm very keen to get more children involved. This is the first year we have done this but it could develop into something bigger and better," he says. "We are creating opportunities for fun and leisure as well as inclusion. At the moment we are putting it out there to test the water and so far the feedback has been very positive.
"Certainly from talking to parents I have found there is a need for activities in the holidays for children with disabilities. It is very important for activities like this to be on offer - it gives them the chance to be like an able-bodied person and to be part of a club."
The Capability Scotland report found that access to leisure activities was mentioned spontaneously by those who took part in its poll and focus groups. Swimming was the main activity parents would like their children to take part in but, according to the report, "participation was restricted by lack of suitable equipment such as hoists and changing facilities, and by lack of understanding of the needs of disabled families".
The Inverness summer school was restricted, running from Monday to Wednesday for just three hours to 1.30pm. But Mr Forbes said this was mainly because "the children's attention span does tend to be very short".
Although this year was the pilot programme, the activities will be developed. "We are looking at an Easter programme as well as one for next summer," Mr Forbes said. "We also want to develop something for those with sensory impairments. We organised two days for children with hearing impairments this year but they were not very well attended. We need to make it more widely known."
Throughout the three weeks, a variety of activities has been on offer including football, cricket, rounders, uni-hoc, tennis and one that proved to be very popular - golf. This is not the traditional game, but Snag golf, with its own simplified rules and terminology. It falls somewhere between miniature golf and regulation golf, but has bigger clubs, balls that are almost the size of tennis balls and different targets. At the end of any morning that golf was on the list of activities for the day, all participants took part in a competition to see who could hit the ball the furthest.
And one member of the group, Gavin McKay, 19, who often liked to watch what was going on, joined in to swipe the ball. "He likes to hit the golf balls, but is not into the putting," says his "buddy", Andy McKinnon.
"We use the term buddy rather than carer to get rid of the stigma," Mr McKinnon says. "I go out to various places with Gavin; he chooses where he wants to go."
The daily programme is organised by two sports coaches. Ruth Macdonald, 16, casual sports coach, explains that the activities vary daily depending on the people who turn up - around 15 each day. "Most like to join in and others are happy to be spectators," she says.
Graham Prentice, who studies sports coaching and development, is the 18-year-old senior coach. "The activities depend on the disabilities and on the equipment you have. It also depends on the weather: everyone can get involved when it's nice outside but it's a bit more difficult if we have to go inside."
Mr Forbes agrees. "I'm a great believer in being outdoors. It's good for the mind, body and spirit. If they are involved in a healthy lifestyle, it builds their confidence, it can reduce medication and it is very good for self-esteem."