I was born and raised in Medan, Indonesia. As part of the minority race, I can often understand how it feels to be on the outside.
In today’s world, there is still so much more to be done to break down these mental barriers and help people understand that no matter who we are, where we’re from or what surname we carry, we are really not so different. Inclusion and acceptance is something everyone craves, whether or not you have a disability, are of a certain race, gender or age.
I first heard of Special Olympics in 2018, from a friend who was volunteering as a youth leader with the organisation. The Special Olympics vision of a more inclusive world was something I could strongly relate to. At the time, the regional office was looking for youth leaders to represent the movement at the 6th Asian Youth Forum in South Korea, organised by the Asian Development Bank.
During my first visit to the Special Olympics Asia Pacific office based in Singapore, I got to meet staff members who gave me an orientation and told me incredible stories of how athletes with intellectual disabilities had been helped through their initiatives. I was skeptical at first. I couldn’t believe that people with disabilities could lead truly independent lives.
Then, I met Yofan, an athlete with intellectual disabilities from Special Olympics Indonesia. We were to represent the movement together at the 6th Asian Youth Forum in South Korea. We had to work together on speeches and presentations, and lead workshops to spread the message of inclusion.
The experience working with Yofan changed my life. Before the trip, I wondered whether I would have to assist him in any way, but I was bowled over by how independent he was. Yofan is an aspiring entrepreneur and he shared with me his journey of how he’s been working to build his own business. I was inspired by how much effort he puts into everything that he does, including working on his speeches and presentations. He’s a perfectionist!
When Yofan stepped on stage during the forum to address the 1,000-strong audience, he wasn’t nervous at all. He had prepared his presentation so well that he totally wow-ed the crowd. I was amazed at his confidence, and felt so proud of him. Public speaking is something even people without disabilities often struggle with, but Yofan had put in three times the effort that most people usually do. This spirit of never giving up, and trying harder than others, is something almost all the athletes of Special Olympics I’ve met embody. It is so rewarding to witness.
I came home inspired to spread the message of inclusion across Indonesia, not just in the major cities but across the more remote, rural areas as well. In 2019, I had a chance to take a step in that direction. Together with a friend, I organised a unified activity for people with and without intellectual disabilities to break fast together during Ramadan. We made it a fun session for people to interact through art and doodling as well.
People from all walks of life came for the event. Journalists from a TV network and online media interviewed us too. It was a very new concept for people in my hometown. Previously, people with intellectual disabilities were never viewed as being independent or capable. The unified event helped break down barriers and foster mutual understanding.
I was heartened when one of our corporate sponsors approached me after the event to explore employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. I was so happy that a simple event could help open the hearts and minds of people within the community to be more inclusive. All it took was that first step – for all of us to keep an open mind, get to know one another, and judge for ourselves.
It reminded me of what a very wise member of the Special Olympics staff once said to me, “We don’t have to do ambitious, big things to make a difference. Every small step can impact someone’s life.” I remember that mantra till this day.
Personally, I have grown to become a more patient person and a much better listener since the start of my journey as a volunteer. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to interact with people with intellectual disabilities. But over time, I realised that when I’m unsure, all I have to do is listen. It is human nature. When people realise you mean them no harm and that you’re here to help, friendships will form naturally.
Since serving as a volunteer, I have also been exposed to different cultures and made friends from all over the world. I love the fact that we’re one big global family, comrades working towards a common goal.
Now as the co-chair of the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Youth Input Council, my hope is for more young people from all over the world to get involved in the movement and become advocates for inclusion.
My message to every young person who may still be considering whether or not to get involved: Don’t doubt yourself or overthink whether or not you’re good enough to be a youth leader. Start with that first activity, no matter how small, and see where that takes you. If you want to make a difference, you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to care.