In 2011, the charity Contact a Family investigated the impact of isolation on families with disabled children. Their report, Forgotten Families, found that 65% of families with disabled children said that they felt isolated frequently or all of the time.
Human beings are social creatures on the whole; living in family units, working as teams and being part of our local communities. When we have children, a thousand new connections form. Friends for life for both parent and child are made at the school gate, swimming lessons, Brownies, ballet and Saturday morning football. Parents of disabled children have the same hopes and dreams for theirs, but it is much harder to find suitable activities and many fear how others might react to what their child looks like or how they behave.
As their disabled child grows up, many families experience a combination of emotional, practical and financial pressures that can become over-whelming, even if they have good healthcare support, strong families and thoughtful friends. One parent often becomes the primary carer, having to learn complicated medical procedures and being alert 24/7. It can be more complicated to go out for the day or on holiday, not knowing what catering or toilet facilities there are. Other siblings become young carers too and might get less of their parents’ time and full attention.
fly2help knows that families with disabled children just want to do the things everyone else can. To see their child facing new challenges with confidence and, above all, to be happy. There is something wonderfully exhilarating about flying. It’s partly to do with the bright blue skies above a dolls house land and partly to do with the freedom that comes from defying gravity. Like Peter Pan, wouldn’t we all chose flying as our Super Power? Particularly if we spend our days in a wheelchair?
Our Air Smiles Days are built around a flight in a light aircraft. Every day is created for the family’s specific needs and wishes, thinking carefully about how each person will be able to get in and out and sit together. Our volunteer pilots may offer the co-pilot seat to a teenage sibling interested in engineering; they may select a flight path to fly over a younger child’s school. We take the time to find out what a disabled child respond to, particularly where the child is unable to communicate fluently by themselves. Some hangars house classic cars as well as light aircraft and their owners have been pleased to rev engines for children who love loud noise and vibration. We might be joined by the airfield’s Fire Service, complete with firefighters’ jackets and helmets to try on, happily spraying water from jet hosepipes.
Above all, Air Smiles Days are for the whole family to spend together. Each day is recorded in several hundred photographs and the best are printed in a photobook sent to the family a couple of weeks later. For any family, memories of a special day remind us of what can be done, not what can’t be done. As one mother said “fly2help didn’t see the disability of my two children, only their ability to be thrilled by the experience of flying”.