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Changemakers: ‘I wanted disabled kids to get the chance to dance too’

Katie Sparkes launched Flamingo Chicks, a ballet school designed to be inclusive of disabled children

It started in a local community hall, a frustrated response to the dearth of opportunities for disabled children. But Flamingo Chicks founder Katie Sparkes did not expect her inclusive ballet school to take her and a generation of child activists all over the world, from Ghana to the UN in New York City.

When she was 22, the Bristolian left work as a BBC journalist to be a strategy consultant for charities. “I wanted to do some social good,” Katie says. Four years later, she adopted daughter, Poppy, who was born with cerebral palsy, after her mother died in childbirth.

“I naively thought that disabled children could just access mainstream groups no bother,” the 38-year-old explains. “But when I tried to do that it was very problematic to find spaces that would work for Poppy.”

Her daughter had taken an interest in ballet and Sparkes knew the physical benefits would be massive. She says: “It’s fantastic for movement. It’s good for muscle tone, coordination, posture. When your body’s growing and you have a disability it’s a really good way to test out what you can and can’t do.”

In 2013, when she could not find a dance school prepared to accommodate disabled children, she took matters into her own hands – by renting out a local hall for an hour and hiring a dance teacher.

Sparkes advertised the classes, hoping others from her area would be interested. There were 15 places available. More than 200 families applied.

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A grant from the True Colours Trust in its early dayshelped Flamingo Chicks grow and five years later it is hugely successful, giving 3,000 disabled and able-bodied children a year access to a relaxed, sensory and affordable dance environment.

What we do is much more of a storytelling journey where we look at the whole picture of ballet,

“A lot of mainstream ballet classes are quite structured and involve working towards exams,” says Sparkes when explaining what sets Flamingo Chicks apart from others. “What we do is much more of a storytelling journey where we look at the whole picture of ballet – we pay a lot of attention to the characters and the music. We have loads of sensory equipment like dance ribbons, flash cards, sound buttons and lots of devices which help children who struggle with communication get involved. And most of the kids need one-to-one support.”

The ballet school caters for children with physical disabilities, with cancer, with visual and hearing impairments and with learning disabilities. A mix of textures and smells are brought in, like silk rose petals.

Classes are clustered across areas in Yorkshire, south Wales, the south-west and London, but workshops have been held right across the UK from Aberdeen to Brighton. Sparkes expanded the school last year. Hatching Chicks is a baby-and-sling class, inspired by the founder’s own experience.

“When Poppy was born, we knew she had cerebral palsy but you still don’t get a diagnosis until much later. So you have this really scary time when you’re on your own without the support of a care team. Hatching Chicks is aimed at mums with disabled babies or new mums with disabilities themselves.” Flamingo Dance, the school’s adult brand, caters for adults with disabilities using the same methods as its Chicks classes do.

Sparkes also established a handful of global outreach programmes, including one in Ghana – dubbed the worst country in the world to be disabled – plus Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Volunteers trained by Sparkes train others abroad to deliver the same compassionate service, then coach them from the UK upon their return. The team is heading out to Kenya this summer.

Seven Flamingo dancers travelled to the UN in New York City, where they gave a speech on breaking down barriers to inclusion,

But there’s more than inclusive ballet on the agenda. Inspired by Sparkes’ proactive attitude, some of the children attending classes took an interest in doing more to advocate for inclusivity. Soon, their tireless ‘ballet not barriers’ campaign saw them invited to 10 Downing Streetto perform and raise awareness of their mission. Later, seven Flamingo dancers travelled to the UN in New York City, where they gave a speech on breaking down barriers to inclusion.

Sparkes is humble about it. “I think Flamingo Chicks has really captured people’s imaginations,” she says. “We are very keen to show what disabled children can do. We don’t believe disabled children should be segregated.”

Sparkes is also pioneering a special Employers’ Charter, after the company’s research showed that less than 10 per cent of fathers have told their bosses that they have a disabled child for fear of it affecting career progression. “Isn’t that just so sad?” Sparkes says. “There’s such stigma and reluctance in people to actually ask for their rights.”

The charter, giving employers clear guidance as to how to properly support the parents and carers of disabled children, was launched in the House of Commons earlier this year. It has already been backed by organisations like TSB and Avon Fire and Rescue. Sparkes will be organising training for them, too.

Funding is the greatest challenge, Sparkes explains. Despite merchandise sales and the efforts of volunteers who hold events and run marathons to raise cash, the organisation’s substantial income from commercial businesses is being impacted by Brexit. But, with the launch of a campaign in May to promote fitness for disabled people, there is no slowing down Flamingo Chicks.

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