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Five top tips to take the worry out of family days out with a child with SEN, by Dave King

With the great British summer upon us, families the length and breadth of the UK are making plans for how to keep their kids from becoming bored and frustrated through endless school-less days. Family trips can quickly become expensive on the wallet and when you have to factor in your child’s accessibility needs on top of travel plans, staying at home might seem like the best option. Days out for children with SEN and disabilities needn’t be filled with concerns about accessibility and facilities, though. Here, I will explore what really matters on a family day out and how to take out some of the stress. These are my top five tips for ensuring all the family can have a great experience.

1. Have high expectations

As the old saying goes, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Gone are the days when accessibility was an afterthought. Indeed, many larger attractions now provide a wide range of accessibility options aimed at making your day out enjoyable for the whole family. It’s increasingly common to find designated days, performances or sessions exclusively for children with specific disabilities and learning needs and these often come at heavily subsided rates. 

When you’re planning where to go, think about what practical things will make the day much more enjoyable for you all and start by expecting that your chosen attraction will be able to deliver at least some of what you want. Do you need: ramps and step free access; tactile surface indicators; low level benches; wide access gangways and internal corridors; separate entrances; wet room facilities; induction loops; information in alternative formats such as large print, Braille and audio-described; or a borrowed wheelchair? 

Some attractions are starting to think more creatively now, so think outside the box with what you want. Are there designated quiet sessions? Are picture books available? Will you have access to a volunteer chaperone to help with navigating the park? Many theme parks, animal parks, public institutions and attractions also publish online accessibility guides which are worth checking out as a starting point.

Theme parks can be particularly helpful. Some provide coloured wristbands to alert staff to children with SEN and disabilities so that they can amend instructions or responses appropriately. Many parks also recognise that for some children, especially those with autism, queuing is an absolute no go, offering fast-track tickets for the child and a select number of accompanying visitors. 

Look out for cinemas and bigger theatres who typically offer audio-described, captioned and relaxed screenings and performances. Many theatres or large touring productions now also produce fantastic resources for children with ASD to help them prepare in advance. 

If you’re going somewhere that requires you to buy a ticket, look out for attractions that offer free carers’ tickets. Not only do they help with the cost, they are a good indicator that an attraction or business is considering the needs of its disabled customers. If you don’t already have one, make sure you get a CEA card for use in the cinema.

Start by assuming that where you want to go is accessible and you may be surprised. 

2. Plan ahead

Advance planning to avoid any surprises is absolutely key, so create a checklist of what you need. Where you can, make planning part of the fun and get your children involved in organising the day. It will empower them to think about what they need in order to get the most from their day. 

Then, get on the phone and see what your attraction can offer you. If your chosen destination can’t offer what you need, ask to see their accessibility policy and raise your request with the Managing Director.

Try and get as much information as you can to reduce the possibility of nasty surprises. Older buildings may not be so accessible, despite claiming to be. At zoos and safari parks, you might find that not all assistance dogs can accompany you, but there may be free kennels at the entrance. Knowing this in advance means you can bring extra doggy treats and help prepare your child for being apart from their dog. 

Attractions which offer lightweight wheelchairs or mobility aids generally do so free of charge (but do check), though they may require a hefty deposit (up to £50) so you’ll need to make sure you have this money available.

Prepare to be told a different story on the gate, regardless of what you have been advised of in advance. Make sure you take a range of ID for your child’s condition, such as proof of your DLA, your CEA card if relevant, your blue badge, your Access Card if you have one and anything else that you can think of, just in case. 

Your child’s mobility or their sensitivity to noise and lights may preclude them from going on certain rides. Check this ahead of time using downloadable park maps and ride information available online. The last thing you want is for your child to be continually turned away from rides or to be too anxious to get on them. Play videos of the ride in advance to help with familiarisation. 

Mark accessible toilets on the attractions map when you arrive (if they aren’t already on). With over 1300 changing places available across the UK, major attractions are now likely to have one, but you may struggle with more local amenities. While it is expected that planned government legislation will result in an extra 150 changing places being added each year, you can’t count on them just yet. If you can, take a camp bed with you so you don’t have to change your child on the dirty floor of an already cramped accessible toilet.

There are lots of travel blog sites which give heaps of useful information on the accessibility of attractions in your area, from the point of view of the people using them. The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain, which is available to download for free online, is a great starting point for any family.

3. Get value for money

Make sure that where you’re going can offer what you want before you agree to part with any cash. And remember, it’s not where you go but spending time together that really counts. Children don’t need to spend money to be stimulated or excited. There is stacks of fun to be had from a picnic in the park or the great outdoors. We’re never more than about 70 miles from the seaside in the UK and many beaches now offer free beach wheelchair hire. Check out the town’s tourist website for information. 

Many coastal paths and national parks have wheelchair accessible paths; routes which are flat or with a gentle incline are generally well-advertised on the web. On these routes, stiles are typically replaced with gates and drainage is improved to make it easier for those with mobility difficulties. A family bike ride with your child on their trike can be a great way of integrating their daily physio into a fun day out along a coastal path. There are a handful of apps available which show you where there are accessible outdoor areas and routes near you so you can plan for breaks, toilet trips and spectacular views. 

4. Prioritise travel

The old idiom that “getting there is half the fun” is far from the reality of trying to navigate public transport as a family with mobility requirements. To get the day off to the best start (and to wrap it up well when everyone is shattered) don’t leave anything to chance. If you’re driving, call ahead to see if you can reserve a parking space (it doesn’t hurt to try) and if you can’t, identify a backup plan in case all the blue badge spaces are full when you arrive. 

If you are travelling on public transport, avoid using unstaffed train stations if you can, even if it means driving a bit further. If you’re requesting assistance on the train, arrive in good time and double check your assistance with station staff to avoid risking train managers not fulfilling their obligations. If you’re travelling to London, TFL provides lots of information on their website about accessible routes, level platforms and tube stations. For children who will be overwhelmed by the Underground, all London cabs are wheelchair accessible and equipped with swivel seats.

Aim to do as much as you can yourself. The last thing you want is to rely on other people who can let you down and ruin the day. More importantly though, be prepared to roll with whatever happens; no situation is so awful that a bad response can’t make it worse.  Always have snacks and games up your sleeve, plan for a broken ramp by having a backup route, and plan for a grumpy driver and you’ll only ever be pleasantly surprised. 

5. Have fun!

The summer holidays are meant to be fun, so think big and think adventurous. Be really choosy about what you do so that you can enjoy the day as well. Your enjoyment will play a big part in your kid’s enjoyment and this is a family day out after all. When the big day out arrives there will always be more preparation you could have done and probably something you forget to take with you. In the moment, follow your gut. You know your children better than anyone and ultimately they’ll care more about hanging out with you than about the logistics. 

About the author

Dave King is Head of Programmes for Variety, the Children's Charity, which provides free days trips for children from special schools through their Great Days Out Programme.

 variety.org.uk

@VarietyGB

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