By Quinn Barrie-Watts, Social Connectedness Fellow 2019
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According to Article 30.5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), governments should “encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels.”[i] Special Olympics (SO) has been promoting this mandate for those with intellectual disabilities (ID) long before the CRPD entered into force in 2006. SO was founded in 1968 thanks to the advocacy and vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose sister Rosemary had an ID.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with my friends Mika Rajan, an athlete in Special Olympics Quebec (SOQ), and his sister Maya and mother Marie-France Juneau, who have volunteered and worked as coaches for 17 years.[ii] We discussed their experiences being involved with SOQ and how it fosters a sense of belonging.
The West Island chapter of SOQ offers a wide roster of sports, which include track and field, floor hockey, bowling, swimming, snowshoeing, basketball, and golf. Mika’s personal favourite is floor hockey, but he also trains in track and field, which features running, relays, stretching, “sticks” and shotput. Mika explains that “sticks” refers to “the wooden sticks that we put on the floor” and jump over, resulting in a variation of hurdles. “I love being there. It’s my favourite hobby in the whole world,” Mika tells me, beaming.
Maya and Marie-France highlight that training in a wide variety of sports gives both the athletes and coaches exercise. “It’s an opportunity to work out on a regular basis; it forces me to go to the gym because I coach track and I coach hockey as well,” Marie-France says.
Moreover, 80% of parents of SO athletes have reported stronger social connections.[iii] When asked if he had many friends at track and field, Mika immediately responded with enthusiasm. “Oh, tons. And a ton at floor hockey too.” In addition to companionship, Marie-France says competing in sports develops skills such as teamwork and sportsmanship. Competition days present an opportunity to display such skill developments, where Mika won a gold medal in the 200m run this past summer.
However, perhaps the most important aspect of SO is not necessarily the actual training in the sports themselves. “There is a sense of belonging, a sense of normalcy. This is now [Mika’s] sport, his guys, his people, his equipment” Marie-France says. “It’s not meeting people through us or through something else, it’s him meeting others like himself.” Maya adds. Moreover, “So many of [the athletes] live in group homes and they don’t have very much to do. They look forward to track and field, to going out and being part of something like that,” Maya explains.
According to Roy McConkey of Ulster University in Northern Ireland, there exists a culture of disability which “evokes pity and sympathy rather than fun and laughter.”[iv] Maya debunks this culture by describing her experiences coaching. “People might think it’s a chore to hang out with these guys. It’s tough sometimes, they’ll have a temper tantrum […] but overall it’s fun and it’s great to spend time with them.” Marie-France shares similar sentiments as well. “It’s very cliché but I get more out of it than I put in. When you walk in the gym as a coach, you’re like a famous rock star at a concert. […] People are genuinely happy to see you and you know at the end of the day what you’ve done for them has a lot of meaning.”
SO has had much success, with over 660 Sport Federation Partnerships around the globe. Yet, one group remains underserved by the organization and by many other disability-serving organizations: those with profound/multiple disabilities (PMD) and their families/caregivers. However, SO is currently looking to improve the reach and implementation of their Motor Activity Training Program (MATP), which is specially designed for this population. The program focuses on training seven different motor skills: mobility, dexterity, striking, kicking, manual and electric wheelchairs, and swimming. Recently, MATP has expanded to include ageing SO athletes with dementia as well.
One challenge SO faces in this process is finding research on this population and raising awareness. Little data is available on these individuals, and MATP remains unknown to many. In the near future, Dr. Eleni Rossides, the MATP Advisor for SO Europe-Eurasia highlights that the practice of peer coaching needs to be expanded.[v] The training of an individual with an ID alongside neurotypical people of similar ages is echoed by Maya and Marie-France. When asked if there was one thing they could change about SO, they spoke of increasing and maintaining the involvement of individuals who are not related to the athletes. “Recruiting volunteers is a major challenge, especially non-related volunteers.”
Marie-France also further recounts the turnout in spectatorship for competition days. “There’s nobody there except for the odd parent or sibling and not even all the parents come to watch their athletes.” She professes, “it would be great to fill the bleachers. That’s one of my personal dreams. It would be great to have neurotypical people come and cheer our guys on.”
In terms of improving volunteer recruitment, SO and disability-serving organizations should work on creating volunteer recruitment clubs through universities, and strive to expand their reach beyond high school volunteer programs. For fostering the inclusion of those with PMD, SO and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should work at including them in their advocacy agendas by increasing awareness.
To learn more about volunteering opportunities with SOQ, click here.
To learn more about MATP, consult SO’s official coaching
[i] United Nations, “Article 30 – Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport,” United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/article-30-participation-in-cultural-life-recreation-leisure-and-sport.html.
[ii] Mika Rajan, Maya Rajan, and Marie-France Juneau, interview by the author, July 4, 2019.
[iii] Suzanne Robinson et al., “Individual and Contextual Correlates of Frequently Involved Special Olympics Athletes,” American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 123, no. 2 (March 2018): 166, https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-123.2.164.
[iv] Roy McConkey, “Sports and intellectual disability: a clash of cultures?,” Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities10, no. 5 (2016): 294, https://doi.org/10.1108/AMHID-08-2016-0019.
[v] Eleni Rossides, telephone interview by the author, Montreal, QC, July 11, 2019.