Written by KIDS CEO, Katie Ghose

Last Friday, I visited Hackney Playground, a KIDS specialist adventure playground which since 2002 has welcomed 800 children and young people with a wide range of disabilities and needs.  We were celebrating the end of a volunteer week which saw 150 staff from our new corporate partner Kurt Geiger completely renovate the outside space and create a beautiful new mural in the company’s iconic rainbow colours.

The playground is a transformational supportive space for children with mild, moderate and severe learning disabilities. Some are also physically disabled or autistic; many have mental health challenges. For once, parents can feel at ease to leave their children, knowing they are having fun and making friends in a safe, inclusive and wonderfully vibrant environment.

For Rosie, whose thirteen-year-old son Blake has severe autism and learning disabilities the playground is ‘an absolute lifeline’. ‘People don’t realise what life is like caring for a child with severe autism and learning disabilities, you could never leave Blake in an open space such as a normal adventure playground’.  Over the past six years familiarity with the playground has made it part of Blake’s routine. Whilst he is enjoying his time there and building supportive relationships with the staff, Rosie spends time with her other two sons.

Families whose child has a learning disability are frequently told what their child can’t do. Visiting the playground, my first chance to see a service in action since the pandemic started, brought home to me KIDS’ ‘can do’ ethos. As Stephen Unwin, our Chair writes: “...the only way to get a learning-disabled child what he needs is to emphasise in all the endless paperwork just how ‘bad’ he was at everything, a failure and a danger to himself and others. Parents revel in their children’s achievements, but those of us with learning-disabled children are forced to do the opposite, focus on the things they’re not good at and share—in crushing detail—our anxieties about their future.’

... ‘What’s so often forgotten is just how creative, enjoyable and splendidly anarchic sharing a life with a learning-disabled person can be.” (Read the full article).

At KIDS, families are supported by our staff to appreciate every small step and achievement, celebrating each child’s unique and creative talents. This Learning Disability Week, we should acknowledge the right of every learning-disabled child and young person to play, have fun, learn and grow with confidence into adulthood. Many learning-disabled people found new expression for their creative talents during the pandemic, and it’s fantastic to see this year’s Learning Disability Week spotlight them with a focus on art and creativity.

Of course, learning-disabled people suffered serious illness or death due to Covid over the last year – a higher proportion than general population - and new research suggests a high proportion of these deaths were avoidable. It took a high profile campaign, including by BBC presenter Jo Whiley who questioned why she was offered the vaccine before her sister, who has a learning disability, to prompt the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to recommend everyone on GP Learning Disability Register should get the jab. Nor should we forget how learning-disabled children and young people displayed immense resilience and resourcefulness during prolonged lockdowns and periods of shielding. Many embraced digital technologies to access vital services and keep in touch with friends or carers, often outstripping others’ expectations in their technological abilities.  

This year Learning Disability Week comes as the Government prepares to announce its review into support for disabled children. To succeed the review must tune into the diverse needs and views of people with learning disabilities and their families, Every learning-disabled child and young person has the right to learn, grow and thrive, but meeting their needs in practice will vary widely. One learning-disabled person may readily live a fully independent life with minimal professional input; another may have more intensive needs, requiring supported living or residential care to be safe and thrive in adulthood. Their family and social networks are crucial, which is why at KIDS we prize our ‘whole family approach’, including siblings, who are playmates, soulmates and long-term carers.

Recently, we asked 70 young disabled people what they wanted from services. ‘Have fun, make friends, pizza’ chimed with me as a snappy summary of three of my own favourite things. Participants generated a smorgasboard of ideas, from practical support with transport and money to help with volunteering and work. They articulated the relationship between having fun at youth club and drawing on their social skills in the workplace. When asked, learning-disabled children and young people frequently share the same hopes and fears as anyone else. Others are non-verbal or express their desires or enjoyment of life differently from others. Parents and siblings of a learning-disabled person have immensely valuable experience from birth to adulthood of family dynamics and communications. This combined expertise must inform the SEND review if is to prioritise the practical and emotional support that will make the most difference in the lives of learning-disabled babies, children and young people.

The SEND review must decide that ‘short breaks’ are an essential service for young learning-disabled people. For Karanjit, who has a diagnosis of Global Development Delay and a mild learning disability, KIDS’ short breaks have enabled him to develop his independent living skills. His mother says ‘he’s learned to travel, to shop, to manage money - all things he needs to be able to do to thrive independently as he approaches adulthood. He recently went to the cinema and was able to buy his own ticket and ask for a concession ticket for his carer, demonstrating his new-found confidence when out and about in our community.’ Short breaks and other support, such as youth clubs and well-being groups, also impact positively on young learning-disabled people’s mental health, even more important given the ongoing impacts of Covid. Yet these vital community services, are misunderstood and poorly funded. If the government is serious about learning-disabled people’s independence and preventing long term institutionalisation, they will make these practical support services a centrepiece of their review and give local authorities the funding to ensure they happen.

Back at the playground the volunteers were anxious to know ‘will the kids like it?’ Change challenges us all but for some learning-disabled children, it can be extremely unsettling and induce extreme anxiety. With this in mind, Claira, the playground manager invited in one family for a sneak preview. Kirsten spotted – and loved - the rainbow colours before she was through the gates and her mother was eager to grab a paintbrush to help with finishing touches. Typical of the playground’s caring ethos, the team had taken before, during and after photographs to help children adjust to the new look. Some children will see nothing different at all. Others will notice the freshly coloured paint or how new sand feels in the sand pit. From rainbows to ball pits each of us, learning disabled or not, has a unique world view. This Learning Disability Week, let’s embrace our differences and learn from the learning-disabled children and young people who after an extraordinary year have much to teach us about resilience, resourcefulness and sheer fun to be had on a rainbow slide.

About KIDS

For 50 years KIDS’ ‘open door’ ethos has seen the charity support children and young people from birth to 25 with a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities, pre and post-diagnosis. A majority of the nearly 14,000 children and young people we support every year have a learning disability. Among them, some use the words ‘learning disabled’ or ‘learning disability’; others prefer to use different descriptions or not to identify as ‘disabled’ at all.