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05 September 2013

5 September 2013

Last summer I took my dad to see Ellie Simmonds achieve incredible feats in the Aquatics Centre, and then spent an afternoon watching Paralympic seven-a-side football in the sunshine – amazed by the skill of players with cerebral palsy. That week challenged many people’s perspectives on so-called disability and it certainly did mine.

But while changing perspectives is one thing, designing and delivering sports and other personal development programmes that are genuinely inclusive – and give young people of all abilities the opportunity to learn and have fun together – is far easier said than done. In fact, I believe it is one of the biggest challenges facing London Youth – and indeed any organisation that does not see itself as a ‘specialist’ disability organisation – as it seeks to provide services and support for all young people, regardless of their needs.

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we can improve this, and wanted to share some of our thinking with others, but know we have a long way to go. Just recently, a survey by the charity KIDS found over half of all respondents did not believe that local services and play spaces were accessible to disabled children and young people. This indicates that we have challenges both at a strategic and operational level.  At a strategic level, I think the big challenge for practitioners and service deliverers is to ensure that young people with disabilities are ‘designed in’ to programmes at the earliest stage.

There are some great examples of community youth organisations including within London Youth’s member clubs, where this is done well. At Ab-Phab in Barking and Dagenham, the whole ethos of the club seeks to provide opportunities for disabled young people to learn and have fun alongside their non-disabled peers and friends. The learning here is that to ensure all services – from arts and crafts to music making through to swimming and karate – meet the needs of young disabled people, organisations need to design their programmes first with the needs of young disabled people in mind, and then extended to include others.  In terms of how to do this, simple consultation with intended service users and their parents and carers is a start. But involving young people with disabilities on youth advisory boards, and asking local specialist disability organisations for advice and guidance early are clearly essential other steps.

I recently spent a day at WAC performing arts and media college, a hugely successful arts-based community charity for young people in Camden. WAC have developed an expertise in providing excellent integrated sports, cultural and learning experiences for disabled young people, while remaining a truly open access organisation for all young people across their borough. Again, there are lessons for my organisation, and others here around having a vision which retains your core purpose – in WAC’s case being a centre of excellence for community youth arts – but acknowledges that young people with disabilities have particular needs, so programmes need to adapt and change to meet them.

I know we need to do better at London Youth in this respect, and expect that many other organisations working with young people would probably admit the same. So there are a number of practical things that we’ve identified as first steps, across programme delivery, governance and learning.

1. Involving disabled young people early: the principle of including disabled young people and trained professional from the very first steps of designing programmes is something that all organisations should aspire to.

2. Inviting in expertise and critical support: at London Youth, we’ll be establishing a network of inclusion champions, including staff and disabled young people, to make sure that all programmes are genuinely delivering to all young people, and if they aren’t, to reshape and redesign them.

3. Bringing disabled young people into decision making:  at a governance level, there is a long tradition in the youth sector of advocating young people’s representation on trustee boards, and for the establishment of youth advisory groups or panels. This principle should be extended so that the voices of disabled young people are explicitly and clearly heard within the decision making functions of organisations for young people.

4. And finally, share learning: infrastructure bodies like London Youth need to support community organisations to share knowledge about what works to encourage inclusion, and be prepared to take tough decisions about even the best intentioned services and programmes if they are not truly meeting the needs of young people with disabilities.

This is only a start, of course. And we can’t pretend all this is easy. Delivering truly inclusive programmes is more expensive, requires specialist expertise and requires people to think and act differently when leading a group. But if there is to be a real legacy of the London 2012 Paralympic games that genuinely opens up opportunities for young people with disabilities across the whole spectrum of services for young people, thenducking this challenge is just not an option.

If you are working with young people in London and want to get in touch to help shape our thinking about this we’d love to hear from you @londonyouth