More than sports!

“This year Hong Kong is going to Thailand to visit the Special Olympics Young Athletes programme,” said Maria Kwok, IKEA Hong Kong.

Thailand is always a popular travel destination for Hong Kong people—the land of smiles, unbeatable hospitality, good food, beautiful scenery and sunshine. However, I didn’t know much about Special Olympics nor intellectual disabilities (ID). I’ve only met a few children with Down’s syndrome on flag days—the public fundraising days of charities in HK.

My very limited experience in interacting with people with intellectual disabilities made me feel super nervous about the trip. I worried about what should I say, what should I do, how should I behave to make the Young Athletes and their families feel respected not offended. Rebecca from Special Olympics gave us very useful tips for the trip; be kind, be open and just remember “they are people too”. I took this all the way through the journey.

Samut Sakhon, a humble and tranquil province located in central Thailand, along the Gulf of Thailand, 1.5 hours’ drive from Bangkok. By Amy Choi.

On the first day, we met with Nui, the National Director of Special Olympics Thailand, to understand the local programming. In Thailand, 2.9% of the population of 68 million has a disability, and 18% of this population is under the age of 14. The majority of disabled young people in Thailand have some type of intellectual disability. There is a huge need we can see.

Through the Let’s Play for Change campaign, the IKEA Foundation is supporting the implementation of Special Olympics Young Athletes in Thailand. The Young Athletes Programme works through the 75 Provincial Education Centres, which average 10 to 15 sites per province, including kindergartens, childcare centres and community centres. Each site serves around 10 families and that’s where the Young Athletes receive individual support. By the end of 2017, there were 4,524 registered Young Athletes, which is three times more than in 2016. The result is very encouraging.

Jasse (the girl on left) was looking at me because I did the dance wrong, haha. By staff at the Samut Sakhon Special Education Centre.

During the trip, we visited two Special Education Centres—Samut Sakhon Special Education Centre and Khon Kaen Special Education Centre.

Samut Sakhon is the province for fisheries and large-scale production of sea salt; the Samut Sakhon Education Centre mainly provides special education needs training to the children in the nearby area. Khon Kaen is the biggest commercial centre in north-eastern Thailand. The Khon Kaen Special Education Centre is designed to serve the whole region, which has 26 districts, for children with different special education needs, including both intellectual or physical challenges.

Because Thailand is a vast country, Nui told us the key to success would much rely on the adaptation of the Young Athletes Programme into the region’s dialect and culture through the special education centres. By doing so, the programme can better penetrate the local community, reaching the parents and giving them parental guidance. In this way, it will teach them how Young Athletes can benefit with a fit and healthy body. And hopefully, through the inclusive play events in the community, it will make an attitude change and create an inclusive society, starting with children.

No time to waste, let’s play together and have fun! By staff at Samut Sakhon Special Education Centre.

The time we spent with the Young Athletes and their families was just precious. The Young Athletes were so ready for the games; they were so eager to play yet they lined up in queue and waited for the instructions patiently. When the game started, we ran together with the Young Athletes, we encouraged them to try their best in every task, and we cheered for them when they completed the challenge!

Children learn a lot through the play activities. They exercise, their motor skills improve, they learn to be patient, to listen and to encourage other athletes to be the best they can be.

When I saw the joy and confidence that sparkled in their eyes, I recognized that’s the same joy and confidence I’ve seen in my children’s eyes. I immediately fell into a reflection: why would we rather see the difference but not the similarities in children with and without ID? All children like being loved, being accepted, being acknowledged and being able to find friendship in daily life. This is the respect and acceptance we can start with, from an attitude change.

Despite the challenges in life, the parents and caregivers see hopes for the future of the Young Athletes through the programme. The woman in green shirt is Mae, the mother of three children with autism. Photo by Charlie Chan.

We have chances to sit down with the parents and caregivers to learn their stories, feelings and thoughts. The conversation always starts with describing the family members. We learnt from Nui that it is very common that the family of a child with ID is incomplete due to many reasons. And this is one of the stories I would like to share…

Mae and her husband used to live and work in Bangkok. When her first daughter was born, she was diagnosed with mild autism and they managed to raise her on their own. Later, Mae found out that she was pregnant again with twins. However, the brothers were diagnosed as severely autistic. Mae felt that she needed more support from professionals to deal with the situation. She decided to move back to Khon Kaen with the twins and stay with her maternal family. The family contains more than 10 members and could support the daily needs of Mae and the twins. Mae could focus all her energy on taking care of the twins.

Unfortunately, the progress of the twins fluctuated like a seesaw. When one improved, the other one regressed. After a while, Mae made another tough decision for the best interests of her son; she decided to raise the twins separately. One now lives with his father in Bangkok, and the other lives with Mae in Khon Kaen.

When Mae told us about her situation, her eyes turned red and filled with tears. Despite the feelings inside her, she insisted on sharing with us how the Young Athletes Programme helped her and her twins in many ways in their life.

In Mae’s case, I learnt that Young Athletes is not just a sports programme to benefit the young athlete, but it serves as a platform to reach out to parents in deep need. Being able to take part in the training journey means a lot to the parents, it is a great way to help them move past parental guilt. The programme also brings parents with similar or different situations together and builds a peer network, enabling them to make new friends, get advice, share their feelings and support each other.

Let’s be friends! Meeting Dano and his grandmother in Khon Kaen Special Education Centre. By Maria Kwok.

When we view individuals with disabilities as different, we forget that “they are people too”. With or without disability, as an individual, we all have different personalities, behaviours and emotions. Instead of starting to know a person with disability, how about to starting with making a new friend by knowing his or her different ability?

    Amy Choi