Widening access to positive activities for disabled children

The Centre for Excellence and Outcomes highlights best practice in widening access to positive activities for disabled children

Social exclusion is a common experience of disabled children and young people and their families. The right to engage in play and recreation is one that, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, most defines what childhood is. The Childcare Act 2006 and two government strategies – the Youth Strategy (2007) and Children’s Plan (2008) – set out clear frameworks for local authority provision of inclusive opportunities for all children and young people in England to take part in positive activities.

A review of available research was conducted, using this definition of positive activities: “leisure-time activities outside of school hours and taking place in, or being delivered by, children’s centres, extended services, youth services, school-based extra-curricular activities, play and leisure services, sports and recreation services, and the arts.”

The first key finding was the lack of evidence itself: there are few studies, and their scope and quality are poor. Evidence from the US suggests that, compared with their non-disabled peers, fewer disabled children and young people are likely to engage in positive activities and the range of activities participated in is smaller. Children and young people with learning disabilities, autism or multiple impairments are least likely to participate in positive activities.

Further research in this area is needed, in particular into the out-of-school lives of disabled children and young people, their opportunities to participate in positive activities, the impact of taking part in positive activities and using inclusive services on disabled children and young people’s lives, and the experiences of children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and autistic spectrum disorders.

Disabled children and young people appear to have limited opportunities to access positive activities in their local areas. This is worrying because Health Education Authority research shows that “disabled people are less active, have lower fitness levels, have an increased risk of particular health problems and this inactivity further compounds their disability”.

Inclusive practice is more likely to be found in children’s centres than in extended schools and youth services. There are more disabled children using out-of-school clubs and play schemes, although parents of disabled children in mainstream primary schools are most likely to report that extended school provision fails to meet their needs.

Participating in positive activities is associated with positive outcomes in terms of health, sense of enjoyment and achievement, specific and general skills development, and community participation.

However, disabled children and young people report that bullying or fear of bullying spoils their experiences of, or stops them accessing, inclusive activities or using local leisure and recreation facilities. They and their families also report that negative attitudes from the public and even staff can prevent their participation. The costs of using services and of transport can be a barrier to accessing positive activities. This is a greater barrier for families with disabled children than those without because they are usually on lower incomes.

The social aspects of a positive activity may be considered by the disabled child or young person and their family to be at least as important as the activity itself. Segregated positive activities may be more likely to meet the desired social outcomes for disabled children and young people than integrated positive activities.

There is evidence of variability in how services interpret what inclusion means. Some service providers seem to believe that they are providing inclusivity merely by allowing disabled children and young people to use mainstream services, without offering additional resources or active work to support their participation.

Achieving inclusion for disabled children requires planning, resources and the active involvement of skilled and well-trained staff, with commitment from across the service.

Opportunities to access positive activities need to be provided both in inclusive settings and in disability-only groups. Sometimes it can be more appropriate and lead to better outcomes if children and young people can participate in positive activities in groups provided in separate settings. The best setting will depend on the preferences of the children and young people, the nature of the child’s disability, and the type of activity.

Supporting the participation of disabled children and young people in positive activities requires more than making them inclusive. Accessible information should be provided in different formats. Some families will need active support to identify and take part in these activities. Some disabled children and young people may need to experience an activity – and more than once – before they and their parents can decide whether to pursue it.


Disabled young people in the Time 4 Change (T4C) participation group at the Children’s Society PACT project in York reported that local authority leisure centres were not inclusive or accessible to disabled young people. The nine young people decided to take action to improve the situation for themselves and the community.

The T4C group visited three local leisure centres and looked at training opportunities, staff attitudes, signs and written information, and physical access and how these could be improved for disabled people.

They recorded their findings in a DVD and accompanying report, given to managers at York Council at a presentation day. The resource included hints and tips that would be easily transferable to any service wishing to improve inclusivity. Copies were given to services outside York which felt they could learn from the feedback.

The following year, the young people visited the leisure centres and found it empowering to report that nearly all the recommendations had been acted upon.

Since the promotion of these changes, which resulted in one leisure centre being awarded the Inclusive Fitness quality standard, more disabled young people in the area are broadening their opportunity to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Project worker Sarah Wild says: “This project cost several thousand pounds. A single auditing visit on another project undertaken by the T4C group had an equally positive impact and cost about £100.”

In the words of one of the young people: “It makes us feel really proud; parents are proud too.”


Inclusive services tend to:

● Develop a workforce that is skilled in several areas, including communication, facilitating inclusive play, disability equality and knowledge of children’s needs and abilities.

● Be well-staffed, with a shared responsibility for supporting inclusion, as opposed to a single member of staff assuming that role.

● Create a physical environment that is physically accessible and offers quiet as well as busy and active spaces.

● Offer a range of inclusive activities, including taster sessions.

● Provide information in a range of accessible formats in generic as well as specialist disability venues.

● Address cost and transport issues, for example by providing door-to-door transport.

● Provide a choice for disabled children and young people to participate in both integrated and segregated positive activities, according to individual preferences.

Further reading

Improving the well-being of disabled children and young people through improving access to positive and inclusive activities 


Author KNIGHT Abigail et al

Title “Mingling together”: promoting the social inclusion of disabled children and young people during the school holidays

Reference Child and Family Social Work, 14(1), February 2009

Abstract This paper reports some of the findings of a qualitative study which involved analysing the views of 300 people across six local authority research sites in England, including 86 disabled children and young people. The study showed that many disabled children and their families experienced high levels of social isolation and exclusion during out-of-school periods and during the school holidays. The paper recounts some of the experiences of disabled young people and their families and ways in which local authorities can promote their social inclusion.


Author STOBBS Philippa

Title Extending inclusion: access for disabled children and young people to extended schools and children’s centres: a development manual

Publisher Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008

Abstract The Council for Disabled Children undertook a project to identify effective practice in including disabled children and young people in children’s centres and extended schools. This document was commissioned by Sure Start, Early Support and the DCSF, to review their access and inclusion. It was designed to identify practice that promotes access to, and participation in, extended services for disabled children and young people, taking into account the views of those people and their families. This guidance identifies the barriers and solutions to ensure that disabled children have the same access to these opportunities as other children.


Author SCOTT Rachel

Title Equalities and inclusion in play and childcare

Reference Childright, No241, November 2007

Abstract In this article, the author discusses the equalities agenda and examines what equality and inclusion mean in the context of play and child care, and how settings can begin to put it into practice.


This article is published in the 4 February 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Inclusive activities for disabled children”

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