A little under six years ago I was honoured to receive an OBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list for “Services to the equality and rights of disabled people.” After the announcement was made I received lots of interesting messages of support and one of which came from a lady by the name of Katie Sparkes.
Katie had recently formed a small charitable group called Flamingo Chicks, with the aim of providing an opportunity for disabled children to become part of an inclusive dance movement promoting ballet, and was interested in finding out if I would like to be a Patron.
At first glance, and as a full time wheelchair user, my involvement in a ballet school seemed quite a strange thing to be invited to do. However, on speaking with Katie it became clear that we had a number of things in common. Both Katie and I had studied at Cardiff University, and for various reasons we had developed an interest in disability rights. We were also passionate about the inclusivity of the Arts.
Never one to shy away from a challenge my Flamingo Chicks journey is one that, as a Patron, I have embraced with enthusiasm and commitment.
2015 saw the Flamingo Chicks grow under the dedication and enthusiasm of Katie‘s guidance and her band of Volunteers; and using the skills which I (and Tamara Rojo of the English National Ballet who likewise became a Flamingo Chicks Patron) could offer, we saw a tremendous upsurge in the interest of the work of the Flamingo Chicks.
So much so, that in November 2015, I was delighted to join the ever-growing flock of the Flamingo Chicks community at 10 Downing Street, where our children performed a routine for Samantha Cameron, wife of the then Prime Minister David Cameron. For Parents, Volunteers and Patrons alike, it was a pleasure to see the warmth with which Mrs Cameron welcomed the children, and embraced the work that Katie and the Flamingo Chicks Volunteers were doing to promote inclusive dance.
Away from Flamingo Chicks, my “day job” is promoting equality and inclusion for disabled people through Art, Media and Inspirational Speaking. In this work I have addressed many groups and organisations, who are always interested in Flamingo Chicks unique ethos of promoting inclusive dance.
I have always believed in the importance of supporting schools and communities locally and, for many years, I was a Governor at Ty Gwyn School in Cardiff, which delivers specialised education for children on the higher end of the learning disability spectrum. I was delighted to introduce the Flamingo Chicks concept to the staff at Ty Gwyn who have since embraced it in the most enthusiastic way.
I am very fortunate that I have, over the years, developed a strong network of contacts throughout the United Kingdom (and especially in South Wales), some of whom have also been able to help Flamingo Chicks in a tangible financial sense. As an organisation that relies wholeheartedly on external funding it has been my pleasure to support the Flamingo Chicks in receiving donations from the South Wales Classic Car Club and, particularly generously, from the Moondance Foundation.
Above all, it is important to remember that the Flamingo Chicks experience, is designed to provide an environment where children can have fun, whilst being safe and secure with their peers and Volunteers. Fun comes in all manner of settings, but my experience of a Patron is enhanced by attending the Flamingo Chicks Christmas party. Whilst 2020 will be a very different Christmas, I have fond memories of the Flamingo Chicks Christmas parties in 2016 and 2018. 2016 saw a fabulous Christmas extravaganza with all of the Flamingo Chicks taking to the stage in the most confident way you could possibly imagine. In 2018 Space became the scene for the Christmas spectacular, to mark an association with Tim Peake, the British astronaut who spent time at the International Space Station.
As we look back on 2020, I reflect on how Flamingo Chicks embraced the problems of isolation and lack of dancing opportunities for the children. To help with this isolation, April saw me recording the enchanting story of Cecilia the Dancing Swan. In total four stories, written by Flamingo Chicks Volunteers,were recorded by an array of celebrities from stage and television, and broadcast on the Flamingo Chicks YouTube channel. The aim of the stories was to combat the effects of isolation in the early days of the Coronavirus lockdown.
In June, who could forget the Zoom announcement of Flamingo Chicks receiving the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. What a great occasion that was, even if it was all done remotely. Due credit has to be given to the way Flamingo Chicks have embraced the power of technology in really positive ways.
Alongside all of the fun, there is a more serious side to the work in which Flamingo Chicks is involved. In this respect, it has been my pleasure to help develop their disability equality practices over the last few years. It has also been a pleasure to see our fledgeling Flamingo Chicks develop into a “force extraordinaire” through the Agents of Change youth leadership programme; and support research into the impact of how having a disabled child (with particular reference to Dads) can affect family and work dynamics. I was hugely honoured therefore to join Katie, alongside some of the Flamingo Chicks Volunteers and the youngsters themselves, at the Houses of Parliament in January 2019, for the launch of the “Dad and Me” Report which highlighted the huge stress under which fathers find themselves when a disabled child becomes part of the family.
When Katie first approached me to work as a Patron I wondered how much added-value I would be able to offer. However, as a disabled adult who grew up as a child in the 1960s, I know first hand how important it is to embrace all the opportunities that are available to help and support disabled children today. I also realised that Katie‘s quest to ensure that her daughter was able to enjoy all of the activities that her non disabled counterparts enjoyed, was exactly the same path that my parents had walked when I was born.
Children are unashamedly forthright when it comes to matters of disability. In this respect I have a simple philosophy: “Tell it how it is” and then the difference between a disabled and a non-disabled person holds no taboo. For children, there is no issue that cannot be resolved without a simple answer. The hashtag #BalletNoBarriers used in much of the Flamingo Chicks work, does just that. Through dance, there are no barriers.
2020 has been a challenging year on many fronts. However the resilient children of today – whether disabled or non-disabled – are the adults of tomorrow. Shaping positive ideas of disability will do much to help the cause of disability equality in the future.
I hope my input and support over the last five years has gone some way to making this a reality with Flamingo Chicks. As we look to the future, I have no doubt that the flamingo symbol which represents beauty, balance and grace, whilst at the same time being vibrant, outgoing and resourceful, will play a major part in shaping the lives of disabled and non disabled children both nationally and internationally for many years to come.