Where it all began…
I’ve always been someone who enjoys doing new things. Not necessarily finishing or seeing through, but doing. I recall as a child doing one or two after school activities per evening after school. I tried my hand at basketball, football, cricket, horse riding, athletics, mountain biking, scouts, competitive swimming, ice skating (with not so much success), rugby, (with quite a bit more success), music, (playing in a brass band and eventually being musical director for around eight years so I’ll count that one as a success) and many other activities I’ve forgotten about. So, when Jonathan, my older brother took up a summer sports club for people with Disabilities I was there on hand to try and help out. I became a volunteer for an organisation called Within Reach.
True to their word, Within Reach offered opportunities for people with disabilities to engage in sport and so it followed that Jon joined a local Special Olympics Club in my home town, Sheffield. I used to ferry him to and from and, being the curious type, stopped to watch a few sessions. It all began with “do you want me to help collect those cones in?” on a rainy night at the then Don Valley Stadium, the session had finished, the athletes were frozen and it was bucketing it down so I offered to head round the 400m track to collect the cones in. Phil, who was leading the session, remarked “we could do with you more often matey”, and so I stayed. That was in 2008.
This was a small group of no more than 10 people with Intellectual Disabilities coming together once a week to undertake athletics. Were there any world beaters amongst them in terms of sporting performance? No. Was this frequency of training going to improve performance in any substantial way? No. So why did I stay? I stayed and went back week after week. There was an energy, a sense of community amongst the athletes, a desire and happiness to be together and to be given a chance.
My first taste of National Competition
This culminated with me attending the National Summer Games in 2009 as PA to my brother who needed some additional support with activities of daily living. There I saw a movement, a chance for people with Intellectual Disabilities to show the nation what they could achieve through sporting prowess. Many of these people had been told all of their lives what they couldn’t do, how their disabilities would constrain them and limit their achievement, here was an organisation giving people a chance to show what they could do. I recall vividly blubbing like a overgrown baby when my brother won silver for his effort in the standing long jump. It was 0.98m, not exactly Jonathan Edwards but here he was on a podium having competed against people of similar abilities and being recognised for his achievement.
A moment which kicked me in the feelings more however was that of watching a young lady absolutely beam when she was awarded a ribbon for coming last in her race.* She was crying her heart out and beaming with pride at being celebrated for having competed, for the 100s of people in the stands cheering for her as her name was read out. I recall thinking, I want to be part of an organisation that can offer this level of feeling to other people with disabilities.
And so it was, as I had since completed my degree course, starting work in the community as a physiotherapist whilst at weekends being player/physio (a new role which I think I should’ve been paid triple for) at my rugby club, that in 2013 I was selected to be one of the physios supporting the Special Olympics Great Britain squad travelling to the World Games in Los Angeles in 2015. This post was voluntary however was funded so I wouldn’t have to pay anything to attending personally, other than taking some annual leave from my employer.
All too often, people with disabilities are shown as the good news story, something to warm to cockles of your heart (or a phrase I personally dislike using, “inspiration porn”). I’m here to tell you that these people train and compete on level playing fields and that there is the same spectrum of abilities that you do in mainstream sport, from weekend warriors to people who train every day.
(International physiotherapists on our training course at the World Winter Games in Austria 2017)
(Healthy Athlete Screening Team on day one of the National Games 2017 in Sheffield)
I have since been lucky enough to attend games nationally and internationally, visiting Graz in Austria for the World Winter Games in 2017 where I spent time learning to coordinate and run health screening for Great Britain for the Special Olympics Inclusive Health Programme. That same year I led a successful screening team of around 100 therapists and students providing free health screening to some 2, 700 Special Olympics Athletes at the National Summer Games in Sheffield and was also part of the team heading up medical services for the games. This feat has been repeated in Stirling in Scotland at the 40th Anniversary Games (albeit on a smaller scale) and was due to be duplicated at the Liverpool in 2021 had Corona Virus not struck. I also spent a bit of time in the United Arab Emirates UAE for the World Summer Games last year as physiotherapist for the Great Britain Squad.
(catching up with some of the volunteer medical staff we were coordinating at the National Summer Games 2017)
What have I learnt?
So what have I learnt through all of this, about physiotherapy, myself and people? Well, I’ve learnt that physios in The UK are afforded far more clinical freedom than those working in many other countries. We don’t have to be “prescribed”, we have the clinical autonomy to assess and triage as we see fit. This is something none of us take for granted as I find physio sometimes like playing “who done it” and the ability to assess and test hypothesis offers me a greater sense of achievement. I’ve learnt that, while I spend much of my time working to improve UK health services, I am grateful to at least have a health service free at the point of contact and a culture which doesn’t drown babies with disabilities in rivers or take them to Witch Doctors (I learned these things speaking to a physiotherapist from Sierra Leone).