We are special educators who have been volunteering with the Special Olympics Young Athletes program – an early intervention sport and play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities – since it started in Punjab, India in 2016.
Over the past five years, we have traveled across the state to reach out to hundreds of parents in the rural villages to help them understand the importance of keeping their children with intellectual disabilities engaged in sport and play. Our message is clear – Do not hide your special children. Be proud of them, not ashamed.
People ask us, why we choose to do what we do. Our answer is simple: Every child deserves a chance and a head start in life, no matter their ability.
Working with our special children has left an indelible mark in both our lives. Anisha is a 6-year-old orphan with Down Syndrome. When we first met her, she was inactive and unable to count or identify colours. She struggled with simple instructions. Over months of activity with the Young Athletes program, she opened up and found her confidence. She’s now constantly smiling and often volunteers to help her teachers with tasks.
Samarpratap is an adorable 8-year-old who was born with a tumor in his brain. He joined us when he was 5. Back then, he was often engrossed in his own world and wouldn’t interact with others or listen to instructions. Now, Samar is an active child adept at roller-skating. Although he’s non-verbal, he’s able to express himself through gestures. He’s an affectionate child who gives the best hugs.
Watching the progress of children like Samarpratap and Anisha has been the best reward. It is what keeps us going, and spurs us on to think of new ideas to reach out to even more people in the community.
One of the most memorable events we organized was a mini Olympic-style sports meet in 2019. We reached out to all the special education schools in the area, and a total of 75 children from 7 schools took part. Parents, teachers, children with and without intellectual disabilities played sport together for the first time, and it was life-changing for so many of them.
We witnessed the delight on the faces of the children when they completed an obstacle course. We saw the joy and pride in the parents when they realized their children were capable of so much. We watched parents of children without disabilities change their attitudes when they saw how all the children were more alike than different. It was such an amazing display of social inclusion. We had teachers and parents asking us after the event if it was possible for us to organize something similar every month!
But there is so much more that needs to be done. We have met parents who still believe that there is no need to invest time in children with disabilities. They choose to keep them at home, out of sight, and away from the community.
We have made it our mission to ensure we leave no child behind. In 2018, we started an outreach program where we went door to door in the rural villages, showing parents videos of what we can do through Young Athletes, and encouraging them to let their children take part. Changing people’s mindsets is often a challenge. Not everyone understands. We’ve had people turn us away, or households even asking us for money in exchange for their children attending our program. It’s been an uphill task, but we refuse to give up.
Now because of the pandemic, outreach is limited. For our existing pool of young athletes, we have started weekly online classes which have been well received by families. We try to come up with different activities every week to keep our special children engaged and active. We must keep going.
The responsibility to help all children no matter what they’re born with, to have an equal opportunity in life lies on all of our shoulders. True inclusion is not something that just a handful of volunteers and parents can achieve on our own. Realize that we all want the same thing – a chance to belong. Open your hearts, and know that each of us has a part to play in contributing to a cause greater than ourselves.