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14 December 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 11:07am

“A wheelchair in the grotto just doesn’t work”: when children are excluded at Christmas

New research finds tens of thousands of children with disabilities will be turned away from a Christmas activity. We hear from parents struggling this year.

By Anoosh Chakelian

When Christie Hermiston took her daughter Elise to go on a train to see Father Christmas, she didn’t expect to be turned away. It was at a children’s theme park last year, where she went with her then one-year-old, when she realised how exclusive the festive season could be.

“You can’t take prams or wheelchairs on,” she tells me down the phone from her home in Manchester. “So when we went, I had to carry her and then stand in a queue for an hour to wait and see Santa, which isn’t comfortable for her and isn’t comfortable for me, so I’ve not taken her this year for that reason.”

Elise, now two years old, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy last Christmas and can’t walk or stand up yet. She has a stiffness in her legs, which worsens in cold weather, after lengthy car journeys, or when she’s tired, which means she uses her pink Peppa Pig wheelchair to get around.

Christie with Elise in front of their Christmas tree. All photos: Scope

With two young daughters, Hermiston both struggles to find appropriate activities for her youngest and also worries about her sister Lucy – who is eight and doesn’t have a disability – missing out: “My eldest can do everything but Elise can’t, so it’s really hard to get a balance between the two of them.”

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At shopping centres and children’s activity places around Christmas, Hermiston has faced particular difficulty getting Elise involved. She finds Santa’s grottos can’t accommodate her wheelchair, and recently had to wait outside with her at a local farm’s Christmas maze – while her friends took her other daughter in – because there was no wheelchair access. Even Christmas shopping is a struggle, when there are rarely suitable changing facilities.

“Often when you go [to do Christmas activities], they’re in a little grotto,” says Hermiston. “She’s two, she doesn’t want to be carried all the time, but getting a wheelchair in, plus you, plus Lucy, plus the elves, plus Santa – it doesn’t work. She misses out, then it just puts you off going to a lot of places.”

With a partner who runs his own business, and a cleaning job herself, Hermiston finds it very difficult taking her daughters out on her own when access will be an issue. This is a problem all year round, with everything from unsuitable swings at the local park to being rejected from the teacup ride at the fair to non-adapted shopping trolley seats. Her nearest soft play area doesn’t even have lift access.

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“Sometimes I don’t want to go to places, which means Lucy misses out, which means I’ll sit in the house and get angry at the world, then get sad for Elise, and sad for Lucy, and angry at my friends because their children are fine, and all these little things,” she sighs.

Christie finds Elise is excluded from Christmas activities

She recently burst into tears in a toyshop at the thought of not being able to give her children the same Christmas as others have. And Hermiston is not alone. The disability charity Scope has been doing some research into Christmas grottos, fairs and toyshops, and has found that 43 per cent of children with disabilities have been turned away from a Christmas activity.

On top of this, one fifth of children with disabilities have been left out of a Christmas party, one fifth can’t access a toy shop, one sixth have been turned away from a Santa’s grotto, and almost a sixth have been denied access to a winter fair or wonderland.

In light of 900,000 families in Britain having a child with a disability, Scope’s polling by Opinium reveals that tens of thousands of children could be excluded from fun activities over this festive period.

While doing its research, the charity heard from another parent, Dan White, who described his 12-year-old daughter Emily, who has spina bifida, missing out on a “completely inaccessible” giant snow globe play area at his local shopping centre. “The magic of Christmas is just for some,” he has found.

“Emily gets absolutely heartbroken watching other kids having a great time enjoying traditional events, knowing there’s absolutely no way for her to join in… The people that plan these events just don’t think about the consequences.”

Hermiston partly blames this attitude on the government for “cutting services left, right and centre for children with disabilities” – including, she fears, support at school due to cuts. The Children’s Society used the government’s own calculations five years ago to conclude that financial support could decrease for 100,000 children with disabilities under the new welfare system of Universal Credit.

She also finds big business at fault for being “so focused on making money, not bending to adapt for children and families”, which she feels can result in poor access in social and commercial spaces.

“It’s awful, especially at this time of year, because you want to be out doing things,” Hermiston says. “It’s very sad because Christmas is for kids, and nobody ever seems to think about children with disabilities. And I feel like she misses out because in 2017, the world is still not adapted.”

Find out more about Scope’s Christmas campaign here