Row erupts over autism pool usage

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A row has erupted over a petition calling for Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council to provide more services for autistic children at the Leisureplex.

One local mother, Tracy Mearns, launched a petition online two weeks ago calling for “the introduction of autism friendly swim sessions and for the leisure pool to have regular autism sessions where the pool would open specifically for children with the condition and their siblings to allow them to enjoy the facilities without judgement and in a more relaxing environment.”

Over 1,700 people signed the petition, which Tracy handed over to Councillor Johnny McCarthy ahead of this week’s monthly meeting of the council.

Despite not being on the agenda, the Chairman of the Council’s Leisure Services Committee, Alderman Paul Porter, and other members of the council spoke at length about the petition, saying that there were already services in place for disabled children.

However, Mrs Mearns said this did not address the key isses raised by the petition and that she felt the attitude of many council members who spoke at the meeting was “hurtful”.

In an open letter addressed to Mr Porter after the meeting, Mrs Mearns said: “I’m sure you did not mean to sound so aggressive but that is just how I felt and I’m sure if I had been allowed to speak, you would have realised how hurtful and unpleasant I thought you were being and you and your fellow councillors would have stopped.

“Please let me make it clear to you by asking for the much needed services this is not an attack on you or the council.

“Far from it, I was asking for your help in liaising with the Leisureplex to introduce these services and I naively thought you would jump at the chance to help your

constituents out.

“I started this petition to do something nice, I was warned that the council were unpleasant and nasty and would try and bully me and break me down. I thought what utter nonsense how could anyone object to someone doing a nice thing to help the most vulnerable people in our community? It would appear I was wrong.”

However, speaking after the meeting, Mr Porter explained that the Council and the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex have a proven track record of working with people with special needs and their families and would continually review services to ensure that this continues in the most effective way possible.

He also confirmed that after discussions with Officers all relevant leisure staff will have undergone autism awareness training by the end of August.

“While there is always more that could be done, and the Council is continually reviewing its services, I welcome the interest that this this petition has generated and it has given us an opportunity to explain to members of the public and give a better understanding of both those services we currently provide and also potential future services if required,” said Mr Porter.

Director of the Council’s Leisure Services, Mr Jim Rose confirmed that a meeting has already been arranged with petition organisers to explore potential options for the future.

“The Council continues to work closely with Autism groups such as Autism NI regarding the delivery of its services and we will continue to do so,” said Mr Rose. “Council Officers will also be meeting with those involved in the petition as well as representatives from Autism NI to ensure that we can continue to best meet the needs of all our users at the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex.”