A parent perspective: How sport helped our son, Will

Dr Sam Browning, Mum, GP and Learning Disability Clinical Lead, shares her experiences and blogs for the Youth Sport Trust about how Inclusion 2020 is supporting young people with SEND to access PE and school sport.

Every parent is familiar with the intense feelings of anxiety when their child starts school. We ask ourselves will they be happy? Will they make friends? Will they find something they can excel at and gain a sense of worth through? Those feelings are all magnified exponentially when your child doesn’t conform to society’s norms, if they live with a disability or have any additional needs. At nursery and primary school these differences are easier to manage but as the inevitable development gap between your child and their peers grows, challenges are thrown up repeatedly along the way.  

In primary school Will’s successes, small compared to his able peers, were overtly celebrated. Will basked in the glory of these celebrations when he could shine, unlike in the academic classroom environment where he struggled and felt “useless”. His sisters clearly recognised this was happening which hurt them and us as much as it hurt Will. We have brought Jemima and Tabitha up to think positively about individuals they meet as people first and foremost, and to focus on the person’s abilities, not their disabilities. We have always celebrated Will’s talents and if anything, he has been our teacher over the years. Will has attended mainstream primary and secondary schools and currently attends a special school, before heading to a specialist college. Our experiences have been mostly positive, but we know that with further reasonable adjustments like that which Inclusion 2020 pioneers, the offer to all young people could be equal and equitable. 

We found it difficult to find sporting opportunities which Will could access. His mainstream school recognised that there were limited options when trying to tackle the growing distance between Will and his classmates, from both physical and intellectual perspectives. The limitations were partly due to lack of experience in delivering inclusive activities and varying degrees of differentiating activities necessary to accommodate those with different abilities. Extra-curricular opportunities were difficult to find and were invariably too far away from home to make juggling busy family life a realistic option. We could see Will’s sense of self-worth suffering because of this lack of opportunity. 

Sporting activities play a vital role in maintaining physical and emotional health. The pandemic has only served to magnify this fact. We know the people who have been most severely impacted are those with lived experience of disability. People are presenting to hospital having gained weight, with reduced mobility and low levels of motivation, induced by social restrictions, resulting in higher risks of comorbidities such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental ill health which leads to poorer outcomes and reduced life expectancy. 

Observing the positive impact which the development of Tadcaster Stingrays, which is Will’s local swimming club, has had on young people with learning/physical disabilities and their families, it has illustrated what can be achieved with ambition to change society for the better. The lives of all of those involved have been enhanced and improved. The swimmers have gained friendships and a sense of belonging to a team where strengths are celebrated. Their swimming skills and stamina have developed enormously as have their communication and social skills. They have self-belief and aspire to future greatness. Parents, carers, siblings, pool staff and the local community have all benefitted by learning from the athletes and their determination. 

Our whole family has benefitted from the chance to be involved in work with motivated people within the Youth Sport Trust, the Special Olympics organisation, Play Unified and Inclusion 2020. Jemima and Tabitha have relished the opportunity to stand up for what they know is right, to advocate for young people, teach others through their experiences and work towards a more inclusive society. Will has enjoyed being given the chance to share his views, to feel valued, listened to and represent young people like him. He knows he is different and struggles with some aspects of life, but he does have skills and talents which he simply needs support to demonstrate.  

Inclusion 2020 has led the way forward in primary, secondary, and special schools by working with the Department of Education, Nasen, the Activity Alliance, Swim England and others to ensure that all young people experience the positive impact of increased physical activity. A commitment to a healthy lifestyle can be taken into adulthood, be embedded into everyday life and have long lasting effects the physical and mental health of individuals and their families. 

My advice to other parents and carers would be simply to get involved and feel empowered to advocate for your young people. Our children, those with and without disabilities, are best placed to work together with the country’s leaders and policy makers to effect meaningful and tangible change. Sport can act as a catalyst to promote action and create inclusive communities.