Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

New play group hopes to end stigma for disabled kids

Alexandra Martinelli-Kinmonth on her plan to have disabled and non-disabled children play together

Hero for New play group hopes to end stigma for disabled kids
Alexandra and her three children (credit: Penny Dampier)
10 January 2022

The first few times I took my eldest daughter to a playgroup were my most challenging experiences as a new mother. I sat there watching other babies engage with the world around them while my little girl lay there like a newborn and felt totally alone, wondering what might be wrong and if I was somehow to blame.

It took a while to get health professionals to take me seriously, even though I knew deep down something wasn’t right. My daughter was eventually diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay (GDD) - which I drove myself crazy looking up online at first - and as she got older I came to terms with the fact that we were on a different path to most families and felt more confident going back to playgroups.

Unfortunately, my old challenge of uncertainty had just been replaced with something new: awkwardness and pity from other parents because I had a different child. While it stung, I don’t think these parents were to blame - there’s simply a lack of understanding and a sense of embarrassment around children who are different. While most of those early years are a blur, my lifeline at the time was someone who I felt saw my daughter for who she was, without focusing on whether what she was doing was “normal”.

I now have an amazing friend group of parents whose children have special needs that I can rely on but I don’t want other new parents or carers to have the experiences I did in the early years of my daughter’s life. It's hard enough raising a child, let alone with additional challenges, and people need to know there’s a space where they can meet others going through similar journeys.

The first pop-up event (credit: The Together Space)

That’s why I have created The Together Space, a social enterprise that hopes to tear down the barriers separating children with and without learning disabilities. My goal was to create somewhere families of children with additional needs can feel safe and supported, while giving neurotypical families a space to learn about those who are different. In addition to a soft play area, we offer art workshops, dance, yoga, music therapy, beatboxing and - ultimately, I hope - a space where families of all kinds can relax together without stigma or awkwardness.

I was also determined to have great coffee and food in the Together Space cafe, not only because I’m greedy but also because mainstream coffee shops and restaurants are something many families with special needs miss out on. It’s mainly due to nervousness about how their children might behave and a fear of being judged but I’d argue that’s yet more evidence of how much we need spaces where disabled and non-disabled people can get used to being around each other.

While we search for a permanent home in Walthamstow, The Together Space has been running pop-up events around the borough and our first two - on 21st November and on 19th December - quickly sold out. My dream of seeing children grow up together, learning to communicate and celebrate differences, has already proved more popular than I could have hoped.

The next Together Space event is on 16th January at Gnome House. Find out more on their website.

See more of Penny Dampier's photography here.