With summer around the corner, the race is on for parents to find fun, sporty activities for their children when school finally lets out. And in this regard, the parents of children with mobility issues are no different.
Yet, when it comes to accessibility and inclusion, some ‘mainstream’ activity camps can often be left wanting.
Susan Dennehy’s teenage daughter Grace Harper has been a wheelchair user all her life. An avid fan of playing sports and keeping active, she has already taken part in lots of sports and activity camps.
“She always enjoyed doing that, but we have a long way to go around inclusion,” notes Dennehy, a freelance radio producer. “Not that attitudes are that poor, but there’s a lack of knowledge and lack of training. It would be very easy to include a child [who is a wheelchair user], and where people often mean well, it’s not always easy to do.”
Mindful of this reality, the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) has created an inclusive wheelchair sports camp designed to meet the additional needs of children aged four-12, who are wheelchair users and/or have mobility issues. The week-long camps are based in the association's dedicated sports facility in Clontarf, Dublin, and camps are also in operation in Cork and Galway. The schedule is packed with wheelchair sports, from soccer and basketball, to unihockey and archery.
The association has created an activity-based summer camp especially for their young members, as well as their siblings and friends. And for a parent like Dennehy, the benefits of sending Grace to a camp tailored to her needs were plentiful.
“When Grace was in other camps, I’d have to stay around and give her a hand. When you find something like the IWA camps, she can be quite independent. Only then can you tell how much assistance she needed before. Could she reach her backpack, or access her lunch easily, or access the loo? This is the stuff your child needs help with when they have a disability, but these camps cater for children who don’t often have the ability to do these things, and that was huge for me. Mums can hand over their child and head off and collect them later, the way parents of able-bodied children have always been able to. This was huge for me as a parent, and huge for her as well.
“The camps offer the same benefits as for every other child – they raise her heart rate, keep her active and fit, and I think sport gives us a better impression of ourselves and makes us more resilient and stronger, and that’s really important. It’s important for Grace to keep fit – not everyone understands that.”
Yet intriguingly, 90 per cent of those attending the wheelchair sports camps, open to non-members, are in fact able-bodied children. The chance to try their hand at the cut and thrust of wheelchair sports is a major draw, yet the subtle positive messaging that the camps provide is another huge bonus.
The camps are a good example of “reverse integration”, where able-bodied people are encouraged to try “disabled” activities. Often, it can help people address, understand and overcome ableism, as well as the stigma surrounding all forms of disabilities.
"The very definite benefit for [children who are wheelchair users] is that the camp is tailored to suit their needs, but these same opportunities don't exist in other sports camps for this level of inclusion," notes Nicky Hamill, director of sport at the Irish Wheelchair Association.
“Not only does it raise awareness of paralympics sport, but the local children have a fantastic time getting into the chair and have fun as its very basic level. It’s a real leveller. You find the experience will resonate with them and they understand what it means to be in a wheelchair. It’s a good way to expose to children what people in wheelchairs can do.
“Ultimately, the parents of able-bodied children want to expose their children to a programme that is somewhat different to what their child is exposed to in soccer or GAA camps. It’s a much more enriching, learning experience.”
Sam Jablanksy, a sports camp co-ordinator, observes that teamwork helps both able-bodied children and wheelchair users to immediately gel on the pitch, field or court.
“We have children with disabilities that become invisible very quickly,” he says. “There are no factions at all, and it becomes a very accepting environment. And, because every child in the camp has the opportunity to use a wheelchair for a race, or obstacle course or sporting event, you’re essentially putting ability before disability, and broadening a child’s horizons by showing them what a child in a wheelchair can do.”
John Fulham was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair all his life, and has travelled the world taking part in wheelchair basketball tournaments. Now 48, he admits he wishes he had the access to a similar amenity during his own childhood.
“I didn’t get involved in sport until I was 14,” he recalls. “I was an active kid, but when you move into your teenage years, being a wheelchair user is definitely more isolating. I couldn’t get in on the act when someone organised a local sports club.”
At 14, he attended a local IWA sports club; something that became a real eye-opener: “It really changed things for me, and you realise that the world is your oyster,” he says. “When I see the kids at the camps now, all I see is a hall full of kids having fun. There’s plenty of laughter and noise, and if you happen to be standing, you’re likely to lose two toes if you’re not careful. I’d love to have had that opportunity as a kid. It’s providing the opportunity for kids to get involved in sports. They don’t have to go up to paralympics level, but it’s more about getting stuck in there and taking part.”
Asked about the challenges that today’s young wheelchair users face that previous generations mightn’t have, Fulham notes: “Things have gotten better without a doubt in terms of access and attitude and opportunity, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there’s still a negative perception around wheelchairs.
“I also didn’t have to deal with social media, and we weren’t as image-conscious as kids are now. Quite honestly, for a child born with a disability, you might be that little bit different, and there are sometimes issues with confidence and self-image. That’s what’s great about sport – it’s one of the things that addresses those concerns.”
THE IWA Dublin sports camps will be held at Irish Wheelchair Association Sports Centre, Blackheath Drive, Clontarf, Dublin 3, from July 1st until August 16th. One place costs €80 for the week, while two family members cost €155 and three family members cost €225. To book a place, and to find out locations in Cork and Galway, visit iwasport.com/camps