Sunday 25 August 2019

What we owe the Special Olympics

The Special Olympics' sense of community can teach us all about the need to belong, writes Sarah Caden

ACHIEVEMENT: The Connaught Female Team 1 team celebrates after winning the Ladies Basketball Final during the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games. Photo: Tom Beary/Sportsfile
ACHIEVEMENT: The Connaught Female Team 1 team celebrates after winning the Ladies Basketball Final during the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games. Photo: Tom Beary/Sportsfile

Sarah Caden

On Morning Ireland last Thursday, parents from Inishowen Children's Autism Related Education (Icare) talked to Eileen Magnier about the centre's impending closure.

The centre in Buncrana was set up by parents of children with autism 18 years ago, and has run on fund-raising and some grants ever since. Now, however, with ever-increasing demand and costs, they are running out of money. The fund-raising market is "saturated", said one parent and, despite "80pc of referrals" coming from the HSE, they get no HSE funding. Icare is in consideration for funding, however, in 2019.

By 2019, Icare might well be gone.

Icare provides afternoon activities, camps, training and respite services to people with autism. They were turned down for a grant to set up a scheme for 15-29 year-olds.

"There are some of our children walking the streets during the day to pass the time. They have nothing to do," one parent said.

"Our children have nowhere else to go, this is it for them," another parent said.

As a parent of a child with special needs, my ears are always tuned to stories like these. You hear them. You feel them. You know that it could be you or someone you love.

Maybe I heard it more, maybe I felt it more last Thursday, though, only a matter of days after attending the Special Olympics Ireland Games with my little seven-year-old.

Because the story of Icare isn't only about lack of funding and feeling unsupported. It's about feeling supported to be able to feel that you belong. That you matter. That you have a place in the world and that you aren't on the outside, begging cup in hand, asking to be permitted entry to what everyone else takes for granted. The image of young people walking the streets, aimlessly, was what did it. It touched that nerve.

It sums up the very opposite of the feeling at the Special Olympics at the National Sports Campus last weekend. It was the opposite of feeling that you belong.

Last weekend, 16,000 athletes came from Special Olympics (SO) clubs all over Ireland to compete at the Ireland Games. My daughter Mary, though she is only seven and you have to be over eight to compete, attended with the Knocklions athletics club. Knocklions is one of the first Young Athletes SO clubs in Ireland, welcoming children from the age of four, while most other clubs have a starting age of six and upwards.

The Knocklions were one of a few Young Athletes clubs giving demonstrations at the games last weekend, showing smaller kids what they've learnt while also getting to do their thing in a huge, real-life sports stadium.

My elder daughter Anna and I were allowed to accompany Mary to the Games. Mary was the main event, we were merely happily in her orbit.

We had friends there, too. One of Mary's best friends was there, with his family. His mother and I, good friends ourselves, were practically in tears the whole time. Through the Knocklions' demonstration of their skills, through the lunch afterwards, through the tents of space-related activities and the musical instruments and the Healthy Athlete tent, where teeth, feet, diet, eyes and ears could be checked.

It came in waves, the emotion. Often, family days out are noisy and busy and, in our boat, you worry all the time about whether your child with special needs will cope with what everyone else thinks is great crack.

I don't think we've ever felt so at ease anywhere as we did last weekend. Mary, Anna and I left the National Sports Campus on a high.

Further, I have never been at anything as well organised as last week's SO games. T-shirts for all the athletes, bottles of water, an understanding about sensory issues and loud noises, a lunch for everyone after the event, wordless acceptance that some kids need an extra nudge to achieve the goal than others. Even just no one batting an eye when the Knocklions under-sevens (OK, just my daughter) decided to take a break halfway through.

While Mary's club did their thing, her elder sister drifted off a bit, checking out the badminton and the bowling matches going on at the same time; the winning, the losing, the sports that might suit her sister at a later date.

I wondered about her acceptance of this world, one that I had thought about when her sister was born, one I thought in those early days that I'd never want to be part of.

And here I was in it, and Mary's sense of ease was infectious. It wasn't just that she on some level recognised the unusual situation that there were more people with a disability in the room than without one; it was the energy.

Talking to a friend, another parent of a child with DS, who had another part of the event last weekend, I conceded that any description of it that came out of my mouth sounded corny.

Corny. She agreed. She'd been spouting corny herself since being there.

And corny gets a bad rap. It sounds saccharine and insincere but it was the only way to describe a filled-up heart and soul that was the result of that day out in Blanchardstown.

My daughter, who has Down syndrome, has never yet been turned away from anything. The world, her school, her Girls' Brigade, her mainstream swimming club, her summer camps; they have all embraced her.

But at the Special Olympics, it was a very different kind of enveloping. From the second we arrived, I felt nearly sick with happiness for my little girl that this was a place full of people who had volunteered to be there, had given of their time for free, had thrown themselves into creating a place of profound belonging.

And these were, to a great degree, young people. You know, the ones we dismiss as snowflakes and self-centred millennials, whom we choose to forget are better at volunteering than the generations above them, who have a much finer-tuned sense of equality and responsibility to society.

I have seen this on a smaller scale this year at the other two SO clubs that Mary attends; one soccer, one swimming. Her soccer club is run by a pair of cousins in their 20s, who commit a Sunday morning to a gang of kids with special needs instead of to wallowing in a hangover.

The swimming club, a new club in the area, is run by adults with good SO experience, but among those in the pool each week are teenager siblings of the swimmers. They all have their garda vetting, some of them, as young as 15, even have coaching and lifeguarding certifications. There is one girl, kind and patient with my often stubborn child, who doesn't only help here, where her sibling attends, but at other special needs classes too.

I have marvelled at these teenagers in the months Mary has attended and thrived at that club. They are young people to be proud of and they were in their throngs - and not all of them related to someone with special needs - at the SO games last weekend. Smiling, high-fiving, throwing themselves into making that weekend a sparkling memory for children and adults who rarely feel at the centre of things. It's a sense of complete belonging. Of being supported in belonging.

I know it sounds corny.

But there's room for that. There's a place for that.

So bogged down are we in the bureaucracy of funding and cutbacks and making the books balance that we forget what life is about. It's about being understood. It's about feeling heard. It's about a sense of belonging.

In Buncrana they have it; but it's slipping away. At the Special Olympics, the belonging is strong. We could all learn a lot from it.

Sunday Independent

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