Giving all children a sporting chance

Some clubs and organisations try to level the playing field for people with special needs


Football mad Hayden McLafferty lives for Saturdays, when he can go and play at his local soccer club, Esker Celtic.

He has a congenital heart defect and spends much of his time in a wheelchair, unable to run around or walk far.

But, through the FAI’s Football for All programme, he can tog out in the club strip and join his peers to play the beautiful game at his level.

“Once a week he can get out of the wheelchair and walk into a field,” says his mother, Gillian.

“When the match is on, he will stand near the goal and wait for someone to pass him the ball and he’ll just kick it in. Then he’ll go ballistic.”

Sense of normality It is the sense of normality it brings to his life that is particularly important, she explains. When his friends in school are talking about what clubs they’re in, he can talk about his too.

Although their training at the club in Lucan, Co Dublin, is separate, Hayden’s team wear the same kit, use the clubhouse and play matches against similar teams from other clubs.

The FAI started its Football for All programme in 2002 but it began to be integrated into mainstream clubs only four years ago, says the national co-ordinator, Oisín Jordan.

It is targeting children who may be struggling to get into the competitive environment of a club, he says. It allows them to have training once or twice a week, to be coached at a pace that suits them and, in some cases, to move on to a mainstream team.

“They are not under the pressures that might be there playing with an under-10 or under-11 team.”

To those who argue it is not full inclusion, he concedes it’s not. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to be completely inclusive when there is such a competitive edge in sport at club level in this country.”

After initially selecting a few community clubs who he knew could do Football for All well, it has “grown organically”, with 29 clubs around the country involved, and several more looking to start programmes.

Inventive ways The “pan disability” approach hasn’t thrown up any serious issues, says Jordan. Coaches have come up with inventive ways to work with a group of players of mixed abilities , ranging in age from five to 14.

They are all there for one reason, says Jordan: “to play football and enjoy it, and that wins over in the end”.

The benefits of sport for children are well documented – from an improvement in physical wellbeing to increased self-confidence, self-esteem, social skills and even improved academic success – attributed to both a better understanding of the gains hard work brings, and a healthier lifestyle. And it’s no different for children with special needs.

Yet they may find themselves excluded, even from PE classes at school. Some teachers are quicker to give a child in a wheelchair a whistle to referee a football match, for instance, than to organise an activity such as table tennis, in which they can compete on equal terms. Resource centre The Cara Adapted Physical Activity Centre in Tralee, Co Kerry, is a national resource centre for the development of sport for people with disabilities.

It is spearheading the Xcessible Inclusive Youth Sport Initiative 2014-16, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and Equality,

It advocates participation by people with disabilities in physical activity in both disability-specialist and mainstream clubs.

There is always the debate of which environment is best, says the manager of the Cara centre, Niamh Daffy. “There is no definite answer; it is down to choice.”

The centre works with the Republic’s 33 local sports partnerships, of which 17 have a sports inclusion disability officer, as well as sports’ national governing bodies, to ensure there is that choice.

“So if I have a child with, say, Down syndrome,” she says, “he can take part in the Special Olympics but he can also look to join his local hurling club.”

Segregated activities have benefits and Cara runs CampAbilities, an annual camp just for children with vision impairment.

“Children get a lot out of participating in a segregated environment,” says Daffy. “Sometimes they lose out in the mainstream because they can’t keep up with their peers or they are not included as much as they would like to be.”

The Xcessible initiative is encouraging national governing bodies to look at how their sports might be made more inclusive.

For the first year the focus has been on Athletics Ireland. The Irish Rugby Football Union, which set up a Disability Rugby Working Group in 2013, will be next and she hopes that it might work with the Camogie Association for 2015-16.

The Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) is one of a number of disability organisations that runs segregated sports, including basketball, athletics and table tennis.

“We primarily cater for children with a physical disability,” says IWA’s director of sport, Nicky Hamill. But, due to a lack of resources and sufficient numbers of its own members, these sports are available only in bigger population centres.

In addition to the health benefits, Hamill sees the social side as critical.

“Opportunities to participate in mainstream events and competitions are not always possible, so the role we play is quite important.

“That said, we do actively encourage our members to get involved in mainstream clubs, particularly where we don’t have a nucleus of members.”

Parents are advised to contact their local sports club to see how their child could be involved.

“We try to put the onus back on the mainstream athletic clubs and mainstream swimming clubs to be more inclusive,” he says. “There has been an improvement but they still have a way to go.”

‘Open door’ attitude He believes there is an “open-door” attitude at the top but “down at club level there is a fear of the unknown”.

“They think they will have to apply different rules and regulations and talk to our members in a different way, but there is no need for that approach.”

If young sports people aspire to compete internationally, in events such as the Paralympics, they can get their performances accredited only at the segregated events.

More schools “need to think outside the box”, he suggests, about how they can include children with disabilities in PE classes.

The IWA asks parents who find lack of inclusivity an issue to let it know and it will approach the school with some practical advice.

Circuit training, for example, is something a child in a wheelchair can do quite easily with an able-bodied class, as are athletics such as discus, shot put and javelin, and table tennis.

Football is Hayden’s only sport. His mother tried him in a special needs club “and he didn’t take to it and I didn’t take to it”, she says.

“But as soon as he walked through the door of Esker, that was it; he was hooked.”

Hayden’s health has deteriorated and he is now permanently on an oxygen tank but the club’s coaches wouldn’t hear of his mother being the one to run around holding it. They told her they would bring an older child over to do it so he knows he is still part of the team and she is not involved in it.

“They were brilliant about it – but they have been brilliant about everything,” says Gillian. “It is probably not the wisest thing in the world for Hayden to be in any sort of [football] club. But because they are so flexible, I can go up and say ‘it’s not a great week this week’ and they will take him aside and have a little bit of a kick-around with him.”

Afterwards, he is one of many boys returning home in Clondalkin in a club jersey on a Saturday afternoon.

He often asks to keep on his Esker kit and then, she adds with a smile, “he goes out in the garden to make sure people see him in it”.

For more information on the Xcessible Youth Sport initiative, see

When he comes out from horseriding, he is a little more relaxed’

When 13-year-old Jack Waters Reilly, who has autism, started riding, it was a job to get him up on the horse. Then, within minutes, he would lie back “as if it was a bed”, says his mother, Ann.

That was two and half years ago. Today he mounts the horse himself and “looks great” as he trots around the arena.

Every Thursday morning, Jack is able to have a riding lesson free of charge through the Riding for the Disabled Association Ireland (RDAI). He attends a group in Kells, Co Meath, which is one of about 60 throughout the country.

At first Ann wondered how Jack, who dislikes having anything on his head, would even tolerate the riding helmet. But his instructor Mary Walsh “is firm” and that, says his mother, is what Jack needs.

“Now he doesn’t even think: the helmet goes on and it is forgotten about.” He also had his compulsion to shake a belt or a skipping rope to overcome.

“I thought when he gets up on that horse, how are they going to control him holding the reins because he is going to want to shake them? But he doesn’t shake those reins because Mary doesn’t allow it.”

For Jack, being able to control that impulse while up on a horse is a big achievement.

Ann also sees his learning to take instruction as a huge benefit and being able to repeat one-word commands, while behaving appropriately throughout.

“When he comes out from horseriding, he is a little more relaxed,” she says of her youngest son of four, who has many sensory issues. “He likes even just to be able to feel the horse and pet the horse. That all has to be good for him.”

What’s more, it is one structured activity both he and Ann can look forward to, as Jack has had no secondary-school place since finishing his primary education last June. She hopes a place will be found for him this September.

The co-ordination between the horse’s movement and the rider has a huge calming effect, says Niamh Kingston, secretary of RDAI. Other benefits include improved co-ordination, posture, muscle tone and confidence, language development and social interaction – and, above all, it’s fun, she says.

An entirely voluntary organisation, the RDAI could give more children the chance to ride if they had more volunteers – no equine experience is required and it involves only an hour or two a week.

For more information, see

You won’t let us go to Spar on our own and we’re sailing around Dún Laoghaire’

The freedom of the sea has a special meaning for Óisín Putt, who is 11. He sails a dinghy out of Dún Laoghaire harbour into Dublin Bay with the sea spray in his face, and his wheelchair left behind on land.

Óisín, who has spina bifida, “absolutely loves it”, says his mother, Ciara.

People sailing small dinghies spend most of their time sitting anyway, so it’s a great equaliser from that point of view, she points out.

As somebody who used to sail herself, she was very keen to give the eldest of her three boys a taste of the sport. Living in Ballycullen, Dublin 24, she had heard about the Access sailing programme in Kinsale, Co Cork, and was delighted when it started in Dún Laoghaire four years ago and she was able to bring Óisín along. It also operates in clubs in Galway and Tralee.

Open to children with physical and sensory disabilities, aged eight to 17, it runs in Dún Laoghaire on Sunday mornings during the summer, along with two week-long courses.

Varying conditions “The whole motivation behind this is to get kids with disabilities out on the water,” says one of the organisers, Ian French. “These are people from all walks of life; they all get a chance to go out on a boat.”

While the children’s conditions vary, from cerebral palsy and spina bifida to, for example, impaired vision, the programme has so far been able to accommodate all those whose parents judged they could participate.

However, it can’t take on the risk of having a child with an intellectual disability in a boat out at sea.

Each child learns in a specially modified dinghy, accompanied by an instructor who has been trained to work with people with disabilities.

The four local sailing clubs collaborate in the venture and go out of their way to make sure the kids are comfortable and happy, says Ciara.

“Some of the kids who turn up on Sunday morning don’t actually go out sailing; they just come to look at the boats. Others will go out for just 10 minutes, others for 45 minutes , and then come back and go out again.”

Óisín is one of those who likes to spend as much time as he can on the water. He loves sport and is a member of the Dublin Swifts, a wheelchair sports club for young people that meets in Clontarf . He also plays on the junior Dublin IWA basketball team.

New skill For him, the Access sailing programme is about learning a new skill in which he is now super-efficient, says Ciara. Last year he won the national Access regatta and, having progressed so well, can now sail alone. He also participated in a junior racing series last September.

He has been able to teach his nine-year-old brother, Rory, who is on the autism spectrum, a thing or two about sailing. Both boys took part in the week-long Access course last summer, after which they each sailed a dinghy back alone to another clubhouse.

As Ciara recalls with a laugh: “They said to me ‘you won’t let us go to Spar on our own and we’re sailing around Dún Laoghaire’.”

A “come and try” introductory day for this summer’s Access sailing programme in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, will be held at the Royal Irish Yacht Club, Sunday, June 8th.

To register your interest or for more details, contact: Ian French on 087 245 6834 or email

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