THE number of children attending Inclusive Athletics in Clarisford Park, Killaloe is increasing every week thanks to the success of a project driven by parents of children with disabilities.
What started as a pilot project have gone from strength to strength and it is now a weekly fixture on Saturday morning that is eagerly-anticipated by both parents and children with disabilities.
Nicola Welford explains the group want children to move from inclusive to mainstream, if this is at all possible, as part of their overall progression.
She is looking forward to the opening of the new all weather Derg AC €500,000 athletics track as their sessions will not be impacted as much by rain.
“Every week we have a new child starting with us as parents are discovering inclusive athletics. The main comment from parents is ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know about it and I can’t believe this is happening’ because there is nothing happening for children with special needs.
“Unfortunately, there are no major organised recreational or extra curricular activities to suit the needs of these children. Parents are so happy they have something they can bring their children to and it also acts as a social outlet.
“Each child is different so we tailor our programme to meet their individual needs as much as we can. We rely on the help and support of parents to achieve this.”
Having completed a disability inclusion training course with CARA, Nicola says it would be great if the government provided grants for this type of training so that parents or clubs don’t have to pay for it.
She says Derg AC chairperson, Deirdre Coleman has been very supportive of inclusive athletics, which isn’t always the case in every club unless one of the officers has a personal connection with disability.
While running inclusive athletics involves a lot of work and commitment, Nicola stresses it is very rewarding for all the parents and participants.
“I have seen great progress in children who participate in inclusive athletics. It has been fantastic. Some children may not engage for the first few weeks but then you can see them engaging week by week. Some children have good and bad weeks but they start to get used to the regime.
“Children look forward to going to training and parents look forward to bringing them. It is a highlight of their week that on Saturday morning they have their athletics. It is not school or the regular thing that everyone else is doing.
“It is also an important social activity. Clarisford Park is very safe, which suits a lot of our children. While we are near the water, all the areas we train in are fenced.
“When we have the new track, this will make our sessions even more tailor made for children. It will be much easier to physically lay out the training session,” she explains.
Phase Five of the multi-use athletics track involves the provision of outdoor wheelchair accessible play equipment.
Nicola hopes that this project will help attract even more wheelchair users to avail of inclusion athletics.
Working in co-operation with Deirdre Coleman, Nicola recalls they put a lot of thought into choosing various specialised outdoor equipment following the advice of experts in occupational and physiotherapy.
“When the new equipment is in place, I would like to think wheelchair users and able bodied people will be able to a proper upper body strength and conditioning session.
“One bespoke item was manufactured for our outdoor equipment in the United States of America. It is the Rainbow Arch, which is multi-use. It involves pushing a ball through metal bars, which involves wheelchair users and other people working together.
“It will be the only piece of equipment of its kind in Ireland,” she explains.
The first session was held in April 2019 before a 10-week pilot programme in May and June, a three-day summer camp in July, which proved very successful and another 10-week stint in September.
The New Year started with a ten-week programme in January before the introduction of a national Covid-19 lockdown prevented the committee from fully completing it.
Last summer about 35 children from Kilkenny, Ennis, Clarecastle, Ballina, Killaloe, Boher, Thurles, Nenagh and other locations attended a very successful camp.
No scheduled activity was provided for children with disabilities during Covid-19 restrictions so their parents were delighted that this event was organised for them.
A bag of treats and a completion certificate was distributed to all summer camp participants, much to their delight.
A lot of the children who benefited from the summer camp have stayed on for the weekly camp in Clarisford Park on Saturdays.
Training is provided by three coaches, Nicola Welford, Alison Smyth and Deirdre Geary, while Nicola’s husband, Fergus Collins also helps out as well.
Most parents stay to observe their child from a distance and provide help if required. As the child starts to get more used to the training, the schedule, the parent can distance themselves even more to facilitate more independent engagement from participants.
The training, which runs from 10.30 to 11.30am, is geared towards children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who may have a mild, moderate or severe disability and children with a variety of physical or sensory disabilities.
Children with ASD are encouraged to overcome their social challenges by working with others in teams.
Some children are non-verbal, while others need assistance improving balance and co-ordination.
A few parents of children with sensory issues used to come to Clarisford Park before the session to help them get used of trees, noise and different sounds.
Other children have a hearing or a vision impairment, a mild physical impairment or an intellectual disability.
The training is also suitable for wheelchair users or children with a physical disability that prevents them from completing mainstream athletics.
Some of the children are able to stay on and participate in the juvenile athletics and a few of them have transitioned from inclusive to mainstream athletics.
Coaches teach children co-ordination skills using ladders, hurdles, relays, the one kilometre track around the perimeter of the park after warm up and stretches.
In addition to high and long jump, the coaches add in a few different activities such as supermarket trolley dash where the children have to collect items in baskets, a team treasure hunt as well as running and jumping to pop bubbles.
Most of the training session is accompanied by music to add to the sense of fun and occasion. All of the sessions are primarily outdoors as some children have difficulty processing noise during indoor training.
Lynn Kenny, who lives in Ogonnelloe, said her son, Reuben, who is high functioning ten year-old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, finds interaction with mainstream athletics difficult as he needs more freedom.
“Inclusive athletics gives children the freedom to go along and be themselves as well as getting the benefits of social and physical exercise. I don’t think people realise how crucial it is for families to have that space because it can be quite difficult to get them to integrate into mainstream sports settings.
“There is a lovely community spirit during inclusive athletics where parents encourage each other’s children and volunteers are very encouraging and so flexible. It is a very valuable facility for parents who may find it difficult to keep their children at a sports activity.
“The summer camp was very incredible because he met a lot of children his own age and he really enjoyed it. It was very well run with the application of social distance. It made such a huge difference to get him out and active,” she said.