We are not so different

We are not so different

We all have hopes, fears, and dreams.

Do you remember the tragic incident in July 2016, when a young man in Japan killed 19 and injured 25 people with intellectual disabilities at a care facility?

How does it make you feel when you read something like that?

As someone with Down syndrome, I feel extreme sadness and anger. This is because the killer believed that it was acceptable for him to take the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

Although people with intellectual disabilities may accomplish tasks in a different way others do, we have the same rights and it is wrong to deem us stupid.

You and I are not so different. We have family members and friends who love us. And we play sports like you do.

I want to share my 27-year Special Olympics journey with all of you.

My name is Hanako Sawayama and I have been in Singapore for over 30 years. Since February 2012, I have been working with Special Olympics Asia Pacific as an Administration Assistant and Athlete Leader. I am also a bowling coach and I volunteer with Special Olympics Singapore.

When I was 13 years old, I had a traumatic experience. All of my classmates hated me and I was constantly bullied by a group of girls. Every day. I had no confidence in myself. I was shy and afraid to talk to people.

After a year, I was transferred to Dover Court Preparatory School. That same year, my friend’s mother invited me to Special Olympics Singapore’s swimming and bowling program.

At the 1995 Special Olympics Singapore National Games, I won two silver medals and one bronze. This marked a new chapter in my life.

At the 2003 World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland, I was part of the 44-athlete delegation representing Singapore in bowling. I won a gold medal in the females’ doubles. I also won two silvers in the females’ singles event and the mixed doubles event. There, I was also given the opportunity to deliver a speech at the farewell reception, thanking the people of Arklow.

My speech at the World Games inspired me to later sign up for a public speaking course with Special Olympics Singapore. I was trained by a toastmaster during the course, and it was very helpful for me.

In 2004, I was selected to attend the first Regional Athlete Leadership Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There, I was chosen to be an International Global Messenger for Special Olympics. International Global Messengers are spokespersons for the movement, spreading the message and vision of inclusion in countries around the world. It was an unforgettable moment as I was one of only 12 messengers in the world that year.

In the 2005 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, I was given the honor to introduce the VIPs. I addressed them in both English and Japanese. At the Games, I was also given the opportunity to meet and speak with the Prime Minister of Japan and the Mayor of Nagano Prefecture.

Since then, I have gained more confidence in conversing with others and doing public speaking. I felt uplifted as I was able to overcome my fears.

As a pioneer Athlete Leader and International Global Messenger, I feel a great sense of achievement.

Now, I am a thriving athlete who is stronger, more confident and no longer afraid to talk to people. I express my ideas without the fear of being bullied. I always have a smile on my face.

I am who I am today because of my family and friends at Special Olympics who have supported and loved me unconditionally. Their support encouraged me to train and compete in various Special Olympics sports, to serve as an advocate and spokesperson for people with intellectual disabilities and most importantly, to break out of my shell.

I hope that after reading my story, you will have a different idea of people with intellectual disabilities. We are not so different, you and I. We are all human beings. We all have hopes, fears and dreams.

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