They are no less than us; we are all equal.
Growing up with a cousin with cerebral palsy has shaped my perception of people with intellectual disabilities from a young age. Although she is non-verbal, I don’t find it hard to communicate with her.
Somehow, we always understand each other.
It helped that my cousin’s family has always been supportive and accepting and were great role models for the rest of us. I grew up being very comfortable around people with intellectual disabilities. It is not something we frown upon or consider a taboo.
Back in primary school, I had a schoolmate, who also had an intellectual disability. The children in my school were extremely accepting of him. Everyone was so protective of him and so he was never bullied in school. Though, if you were to try, I’m certain there will be people who would stand up for him. That was the school I grew up in – surrounded by caring and loving people. These early life experiences sparked my interest and encouraged me to help this community; which is why I joined Special Olympics New Zealand. Prior to this, I was coaching a mainstream football team. Now, as a regional sports coordinator with Special Olympics, I coach athletes with intellectual disabilities and am mainly in charge of the lower North Island area.
I currently coach athletes in football for six clubs under Special Olympics. We have young players who are 12 and we have senior players who are in their 60s. This job fits me perfectly as I get to give back to the community and at the same time enjoy my favorite sport. The fulfilment this job gives me is indescribable. It is extremely gratifying to watch the athletes accomplish something they thought they weren’t capable of.
During matches, you get to see some of the athletes shine as they pull off different moves. Some of them even have the potential to play in mainstream teams. As a coach, seeing how far my players have progressed makes the time and effort that I have put in, meaningful.
As the Special Olympics program expands, I hope that more female athletes will join and pick up football. Right now, the clubs are made up of predominantly male athletes. I also hope for more support from local mainstream football clubs. Their support would enable us to provide more opportunities for our athletes with intellectual disabilities.
My cousin turned 33 this year. It warms my heart to remember that she, and other people, athletes with intellectual disabilities I am fortunate to be around, are loved and protected. My dream is to see and know that others in the world, too, receive the same type of treatment and opportunities. We are all equals after all.