Recent research conducted by national deafblind charity Sense on 'The Case for Play', which found that 92% of parents who have children with disabilities felt their child did not have the same opportunities to play as their non-disabled peers was not only upsetting to read, but also painted a bleak picture of the inequality children with disabilities are facing.
The report revealed that more than 80% of parents found it difficult to access mainstream play groups and local play opportunities at leisure centres, playgrounds and soft play. It is vital that these barriers are removed so that all children, both those who are well and those who are ill, can feel included and enjoy one of the most memorable and significant aspects of childhood - playing with other children.
Play is incredibly important to a child's emotional wellbeing. It is even more important for children with special needs to feel integrated into everyday society, doing the same things as their peers without judgement or limitation. At Helen & Douglas House, we recognise the importance of play for children and the significance this has in their happiness, wellbeing and inclusion.
Integration is vital, and we do our utmost to encourage children and young adults in our care. For example, each year some of the children who use Helen & Douglas House, who attend 'special schools' get involved in Oxford's annual event the 'Big Sing', which includes over 500 pupils from a variety of different primary schools. It is hugely beneficial for their development to play and mix with other pupils, and to be part of large occasions in their community. And, unsurprisingly, they love it.
For those with a life-limiting illness or disability, it is not unusual to feel like an outsider. The existence of barriers to everyday activities only exacerbates this feeling. We do everything we can at the hospice not only to provide the children with the medical and nursing care that they need, but also to enable them to participate in children's hobbies and social activities. More often than not, this means facilitating everyday children's activities - dressing up, painting, playing with puppets - or in the case of our young adults, attending music festivals, having a drink with friends, or living independently with a partner. By enabling young people to do these things, in a safe and practical way, they don't have to feel excluded from what we take for granted.
Parents from the hospice are often keen to foster normal mile stones, ensuring their children are listening to the same music, wearing the same clothes and playing with the same toys as other children their own age so they don't feel like they are being treated differently. What is key is giving a child choice - if they want to play or listen to something designed for a younger child, that's fine too.
That said, for all that inclusivity is of huge importance, special considerations do need to be made. A lot of children who come to the hospice have found it difficult to make friends at school or in play groups, often due to limitations of their illness. The 'play room' and social spaces at Helen & Douglas helps with this and through being in a different environment focused entirely on play or socialisation, the children tend to feel more comfortable and find it easier to make friends. Often, once friendships are established, children and young adults choose to visit the hospice together and build a consistent friendship.
We need to see a future where disabled children feel more confident to make friends in community play groups and in schools. The recommendation that each play setting has a play policy statement that stresses the inclusion of every child is a very good one. To assume all children are the same has its complications, but it is every child's right to play and is an integral part of childhood and we need to ensure that nobody is excluded from enjoying and benefiting from this.