For longer than I haven’t, I have spent my summers working for a charity that provides play schemes and residential short breaks for children (5-18) with moderate to severe learning and / or physical disabilities. No matter where I’ve been or what I’m doing, this is where you will find me in the summer holidays. It is, first and foremost, a respite service for parents of disabled children and I know, of course, that there are many such organisations… but none, I truly believe, quite like ASAS. Exceptionally good ratios (more staff than children!!!), our own accessible transport, incredibly low staff turnover (resulting in a team that knows one another and works well together), a high quality training and induction programme, and leadership that lives on the ground, leading by example whether its providing personal care or wearing a grass skirt and a shaving foam beard; we decide what we think our children will enjoy and then we make it happen no matter what. We make the world work for us. One of the reasons I became a teacher was to keep my summer holidays free for ASAS. My first fights for fair access were to get ASAS children into cinemas and onto rollercoasters when the first answer was no. The first step on my SENCo journey was a fifteen year old volunteer through the doors of this charity. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I don’t even know who I’d be without it. All this time later, I need my summer work more than ever to contextualise, motivate and inspire me for the year ahead. We haven’t let anything stand in the way of us sailing, caving, climbing and just generally having a great time… nothing is impossible with the right people and determination.
The summer scheme is, and has been for as long as I’ve worked for it, held at a special school where I used to work as a teaching assistant (yes, you read that correctly). The school has, before, during and after my employment there, had its ups and downs, but it too – along with Mencap, who I worked for whilst I was at university – played a huge role in shaping my views and attitudes regarding inclusion and disability in society. No matter what has happened and how much has changed since I worked there, my heart still lives at Green Meadows special school. This summer, I have loved finding and reading the inspiring phrases that are now dotted around the school building and I’ll definitely be keeping these in mind as I go into the new academic year.
A key job for me this summer has been reviewing our approach to supporting students experiencing a decline in their mental health and wellbeing, including those who are showing us this through a deterioration in their behaviour. The phrase ‘fight fire with water’ has really stuck in my mind throughout that review process. In fact, the more I think about it, the phrase ‘fight fire with fire’ doesn’t make sense on any level.
There were hundreds of magic moments this summer, like every summer, that I’ll take with me into the upcoming academic year but I’m just going to talk about one wonderful place that we’ve been lucky enough to be going to for years. I have, a longish time ago, spoke briefly about Nell Bank before. If you want to know what inclusion – true inclusion – can look like, look no further; this is how you do it.
Nell Bank is a day and residential outdoor experience centre based in beautiful Ilkley, West Yorkshire. It isn’t simply that Nell Bank is very inclusive, but the way that Nell Bank is inclusive that makes it special. True inclusion is seamless and all-encompassing. True inclusion is invisible. At Nell Bank, there’s no separate entrance, alternative routes with ramps, or annexed areas that tick the ‘disabled friendly’ box; it all just… is… for everyone. And I’m talking about climbing frames and assault courses here! It is one of very, very few places where we can all go together and all have an equally good time – an adventure – together. Whether its pond dipping (all raised ponds), splashing in the water play area, riding in the Nell Buggy (wheelchair accessible golf cart!), playing on the massive fort climbing frame (wheelchair friendly right to the very top!), or completing the superb assault course (see photos!!!), there is nothing here that we cannot all enjoy together. Also, we just go for the day but I happen to know that their residential facilities include height adjustable tables, kitchen and beds, hoists, and a hygiene suite that has a bath with a lowering platform.
If I can make inclusion at my school as seamless and all-encompassing as it is at Nell Bank then I’ll be one happy INCo. The holidays may be nearly over (for me, at least! My school reopens on 23rd August!), but I’m ready! Thanks, ASAS, for another inspirational summer.