Visually impaired children who play sport and can socialise freely are more likely to be confident and develop good social skills, writes Nina Jacobs.
This is the premise on which charity Action for Blind People has founded its programme of sports clubs designed specifically for blind and partially sighted children.
The weekly sessions not only provide the opportunity to try out new activities but also for the young people to make new friends.
Lesley Inganni, Action’s deputy sports development manager, says the Actionnaires clubs play a vital role in ensuring visually impaired children are not left on the sidelines.
Left out at school
Although most children and young people who join the charity’s clubs attend mainstream schools, Inganni says they are not always integrated when it comes to playing school-based sports.
“Often it can be due to health and safety reasons, or a lack of knowledge about how to integrate the children,” she explains. “Sometimes you find visually impaired children not actually taking part in the sport at school but helping out with the scoring.”
In one area, Inganni met a 12-year-old visually impaired child who had never run before. But she admits this was an extreme case.
The charity’s efforts in establishing successful clubs at 28 different venues across the UK over the last five years have recently attracted national acclaim.
Action was awarded the Play and Social Development Award at the Children and Young People’s Services Awards 2007 for advancing sporting opportunities for visually impaired children.
With a target of running 56 Actionnaires clubs by 2010, Inganni says the charity has yet to be faced with any significant obstacles in launching the scheme.
She believes it is the uniqueness of the clubs which is their main strength. Unlike a sports club which caters for children with all types of disability, Actionnaires has tailored its activities and equipment solely for those who are visually disabled.
In terms of playing certain sports such as cricket, Inganni says members play the club’s own rules which, for example, allow the ball to bounce before they catch it. Other modifications include line markings on the floor to help guide the children and the use of brightly coloured or larger sized balls.
Each club’s programme of activities has been drawn up according to the requests of its members, adds Inganni. “We like to give children ownership of the clubs. If they want to do a sport we will do our best so they can learn it,” she says.
She explains all member requests from skiing to scuba diving are considered on their own practical merits. “If we really can’t do something we will provide as close an alternative as we can,” she says.
Membership is free for each club, and guests such as siblings or friends are allowed to join in activities. The charity relies on a team of fundraisers, as well individual donations and grants, to fund the running of the clubs. This money also pays for the salaries of two paid employees at each club.
Choosing the location of a new club is not always dependent on the findings of the charity’s research into the needs of a specific area. Elaine Pinkney, a rehabilitation officer employed by Bradford Council at its education unit, approached Action to set up a club in her area. “I knew of the clubs in other areas. But in Bradford there wasn’t anything specifically for visually impaired young people,” she explains. “There are pan-disability clubs but not many visually impaired children were going to them.”
Pinkney believes the greatest achievement of Actionnaires is to give each child a sense of identity and belonging. She says this is particularly important for those children who may be the only visually impaired pupil at their school.
“The club helps to increase social interaction and independence,” she says. “The children are more confident and relaxed in open spaces, which makes it easier for me when I teach them.”
For Tom Norton, now 20, an Actionnaires club in Hampshire gave him the opportunity to continue his interest in judo. As a 14-year-old pupil at a local school with a specialist visually impaired base, it was an activity he had already learnt and felt he could do in spite of his visual impairment.
Allowing children to choose what sports they like is crucial to the success of Actionnaires, according to Norton, who has since been employed as a co-ordinator at an Actionnaires club in Portsmouth. “At the moment we play cricket, goalball and trampoling, which has been very popular,” he says.
On a personal level, joining Actionnaires has led to Norton becoming captain of an under-21 blind cricket team, a sport he is clearly passionate about. For his young members, the project is the perfect opportunity to try a new sport in a safe environment in the company of those with a similar disability.
“It’s a job that gives you a sense of well-being,” says Norton. “I know what these kids have been through and it is great to see how much they are getting out of Actionnaires.”