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Belfast Live
Belfast Live
Michael Kenwood

Belfast Council acknowledges lack of facilities in leisure centres for autistic people

Belfast Council has acknowledged a dearth of facilities for people with autism in its leisure facilities and vowed to transform access for people with disability.

At Belfast City Council ’s recent meeting of its People and Communities Committee, People Before Profit Councillor Michael Collins proposed a motion stating that the council “recognises the shortage of services available for people with disabilities” and seeks to expand with the management company “to expand and promote inclusive services within our leisure centres to ensure an accessible and welcoming environment for everyone”.

The motion plans to improve accessibility for people with autism and other disabilities in Belfast’s 12 leisure centres and aims to promote inclusive sessions for people with disabilities, as is already the case with Lagan Valley Complex and Dundonald Ice Bowl in Lisburn. In 2014, Belfast City Council’s leisure services were outsourced to the private company Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), who now operate under the 'Better' brand.

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The motion states: “The council will seek the input of service users, engage with autism support networks, Better Leisure and Disability Sport NI to bring inclusion and community to our leisure centres by improving accessibility for people with autism and other disabilities.”

It adds: “Sessions should include, but not be limited to, swimming pools, and should be at an accessible hour for children and parents to make best use of them. The council will work with Better to ascertain which other services, such as trampolining, inflatable park facilities and any other leisure facilities which may be included in these inclusive sessions.

“The council will strive to ensure all amenities inside leisure centres are fully inclusive for people with disabilities. This includes improving advertising and continuing to promote the use of WAP cards, as well as ensuring staff are adequately trained to support children, families and carers to provide fully inclusive services to people with autism and other abilities.”

It states: “The council will continue its pioneering work with Swimming Buddies in Brook Leisure Centre and explore ways to expand this across all 12 leisure centres in Belfast, to ensure the life skills of swimming lessons are readily accessible for children at a local level offering a supportive space for families and provided in an inclusive manner.

“The council will engage with Better to explore the permanent installation of a Sensory Room in one or more of our leisure centres in Belfast. The council will strive to better promote and advertise inclusive services in our leisure centres across all of our social media platforms and publications with the overall aim of being leaders in the area of inclusive leisure services.”

Councillor Collins said his proposal came after conversations with networks including parents from the Colin Autism Support Group. He said: “There is a lot of frustration from parents regarding a general lack of accessibility of services across the board in terms of education and health for people with autism.

“With the proper support and resources our leisure centres could be vital social hubs and activity spaces for people with autism and other disabilities. Our leisure centres already do fantastic work in this regard, and really this motion seeks to promote and expand that work.”

He added: “If you look at the South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon, it recently won an award for inclusivity and an official accreditation as a Disability NI Inclusive Sport Facility. It’s a big step forward, and it is the only leisure centre in the region that had this accreditation.” He said the services that do exist in Belfast are “not very well advertised” and “not uniform.”

Alliance Councillor Ross McMullan, a noted advocate and campaigner on inclusivity for disabled people, welcomed the motion. He told the committee there was a “lack of an overarching strategy from this council around ensuring all its services are accessible, and from those we partner as well.” He said the issues amounted to “the one major piece of work missing” from the council.

Sinn Féin Councillor Geraldine McAteer said: “One of the biggest negative impacts is the social marginalisation and loneliness that is attached to that, so anything we can do in terms of enhancing the health, wellbeing and inclusion of children, young and older persons with autism is really to be welcomed.

“I really like the ideas around sensory rooms and swimming clubs. Anything that we can do through the facilities we have at our disposal, we should be doing.”

Elected representatives agreed an officer report looking into the proposals and deputations from Swimming Buddies, the autism swimming body, to the committee in February.

The latest statistics from the Department of Health shows that one in 21 school age children are now being diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland - an increase of 62 percent over the past five years. The figures extracted from the Northern Ireland School Census shows the highest prevalence rate of school age children diagnosed with autism is within the Belfast Trust, with boys being three times more likely to have a diagnosis of autism than girls.


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