By Joan Henson
Centrebet stadium, home of the NRL’s Penrith Panthers, showcased the sporting abilities of 70 intellectually disabled people on Wednesday in an event hosted by Special Olympics NSW and supported by the Panthers.
Community Disability Sports Day promoted regional Special Olympics training sessions and provided a day of sport for those unable to access regional training by offering them a chance to play a round of circuit games with the Panthers, covering Rugby League, soccer, cricket, and athletics bocce.
As almost 90 per cent of participants had not previously attended a Special Olympics event, Andrew Sadlier, state manager to Special Olympics NSW, hopes that first-timers will join the Blue Mountains-Nepean and new Hawkesbury programs.
The event contributed to the Special Olympics Community Sports Link program, which runs events during weekday working hours to provide sport for people who cannot attend weeknight and weekend training.
“Attending training relies on being transported to sport by family or carers. But if parents work or a single parent is working, busy timetables may be a barrier to participation,” Mr Sadlier says. “For people who attend a group home during the day or live there, this event provides an opportunity to participate in something other than regular day programs. They hop in the bus and do a day of sport.”
The St Mary’s Nepean Area Disabilities Organisation coordinates a day program for adults ranging from the age of 65.
Day Program Coordinator Joy Lockyer says that group homes don’t have the support staff needed to attend individual training sessions, and older clients often have elderly parents that lack the energy to take them to regular sport.
Ms Lockyer says that although St Mary’s clients are unable to attend training, “this event made them feel included, because they are Panthers fans, like other members of the community”.
Not all intellectually disabled people will find competitive success in the Special Olympics but there will always be something new for them to achieve, says Maggi Williams, secretary of Special Olympics Blue Mountains-Nepean.
“It gives them a chance to succeed which isn’t often available to people with intellectual disabilities,” Ms Williams says. “People with intellectual disabilities tend to hang back from sports. They may feel less able than regular sports players, or feel a bit lost. This gives them the chance to see that they can have a go at anything.”
Joshua Elston, 22, who has Down Syndrome, attends Special Olympics events with his mother Fran Elston, the regional fundraising and publicity coordinator. Although Joshua is now a competitor, before he joined the Special Olympics he was told by a swimming teacher that he would never swim.
“I was told he’d never learn to swim because they couldn’t even teach him to doggy paddle, and then he joined the Special Olympics and hasn’t looked back,” Mrs Elston says. As an introverted child, Joshua became anxious and began to lose his hair when his two brothers left to attend Duntroon Military College.
“That’s when we realised that we had to get him involved in something that would give him a life other than his brothers’ lives,” Mrs Elston says. Joshua has completed regional and state competitions in swimming and tenpin bowling, and was recently awarded a silver and three bronze medals at the national swimming event.
Nicholas Zdon, 18, who also has Down Syndrome, has always been active and his weak muscle tone has been improved with Special Olympics training. His mother Hanna says that Special Olympics programs allow intellectually disabled people to be socially recognised.
“When everyone stands back and allows them to really participate at their own tempo, they can enjoy the day. At last they are the centre of attention, because they are usually at the back.”