“How can I dance like this?” asked Lisa, a wheelchair user in her early teens, who came along to Variety’s Great Day Out at the Ballet last month. It’s a fair question and I can see why she asked it. Imagine that you’ve grown up understanding yourself as different to everyone else, to believe that you need special provision to take part in activities and that society does not expect you to be able to take part anyway. It’s no surprise that this feisty young Liverpudlian should ask such a question. We all have the basic need to feel cared for and for our needs to be acknowledged.

Variety, the Children’s Charity, works with children and young people living with a wide range of disabilities or who live in some of the poorest parts of the UK. While theatres are making good progress in the area of accessibility with autism friendly or captioned performances and reduced ticket prices, there is much less offered in the area of dance. Most theatres can’t accommodate 12 wheelchair users for the same performance, let alone side by side so children end up being split from their friends.

When Variety, with the generous support of the Allmed Group, began designing its first ever national ballet tour, we knew that it had to be inclusive. Taking place in Liverpool, Manchester and London, it had to offer the opportunity for children to see ballet and then, crucially, to take part in an accessible and inclusive modern dance workshop.

In total, 193 children from 12 different schools watched live classical ballet, many for the first time, performed by a group from a ballet school in Moscow. The fully accessible venues offered quiet areas for children to avoid over-stimulation and flexible seating arrangements. And best of all, our dance instructor at two of the locations was a wheelchair user.

Imagine the look on Lisa’s face when, in response to her question, I pointed out that she would be dancing in her wheelchair and that her instructor was also a wheelchair user – in fact she’s an international Para Dance competitor. As she punched the air shouting ‘YES!’ I was reminded of how often disabled young people are not represented, their needs are not accommodated and they can all-to-often feel as though they have to settle for second best.

It’s easy to assume that Paralympians are the role models for children and young people growing up as wheelchair users so we ‘don’t need to worry about that anymore’. But if you aren’t into Paralympic sport, who is there ‘like you’, who can inspire and motivate you to dream differently?

Lisa was right to challenge me about how I was going to ensure she could participate. It’s young people like Lisa who will continue to campaign for equality for disabled people so that they are able to take part and not be relegated to watching from the side lines. My hope though is that before long, wherever she goes and in whatever she does, Lisa won’t have to settle for second best anymore.

The week-long Variety’s Great Day Out at the Ballet toured to Manchester, Liverpool and London thanks to the generous support of our sponsor, the Allmed Group. ‘The experience was incredibly rewarding for us as a corporate partner, and we want to thank Variety for allowing us the opportunity to work with them in delivering a programme to benefit and enrich the lives of so many young people’ said a spokesperson from Allmed.

by Dave King, Head of Programmes for Variety.