The Special Olympics Canada 2014 Summer Games, taking place at UBC this July, will give athletes and volunteers the chance to change perceptions
Jeff Eccleton is 23 years old. He plays soccer, basketball, swims and powerlifts but he can’t cross the street by himself.
Jeff has Down syndrome and he is one of 4,259 Special Olympics athletes in the province. Next summer UBC is welcoming athletes from across the country for the Special Olympics Canada 2014 Summer Games. If they qualify at the 2014 National Games, they will go to the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Special Olympics offers people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate and celebrate personal achievement through sport. Not to be confused with the Paralympic Games, a sporting event for people with physical and sensory disabilities that take place following the Olympic Games, Special Olympics is a year-round movement for athletes of all ages and all levels to practise, train, and compete in sports. For some athletes, it is about the competition and they train hard to get the chance to represent their province at events like the Special Olympics Canada Games. Other athletes, like Jeff, do not compete at that level. For him, it is about being physically active and socializing every week.
“It has proved to be a wonderful gift for him and other athletes,” says Barry Eccleton, director of Campus Security at UBC and Jeff’s father.
Fifteen years ago, when Jeff was growing up, Barry and his wife Sheryl were keen to find opportunities for him to develop and grow and Special Olympics seemed like the right choice. But with a family of four young boys, they didn’t have time to shuttle Jeff to and from the nearest practices in nearby towns. Instead they decided to open a local chapter in Delta where they live.
When the chapter opened, they had to recruit athletes and only offered two sports, swimming and bowling, which Barry coached. Today the Delta chapter supports more than 100 athletes, 15 different sports, and is run by 70 to 80 volunteers.
A catalyst for inclusion
Barry says it was quite a bit of work to get the chapter off the ground but it provided athletes like Jeff with an outlet and a chance to make friends and add a new dimension to their lives.
“These kids don’t have a lot of outlets. They don’t have the same opportunities to make friends and participate in activities like organized sport.”
Tim Stainton, a professor of social work at UBC whose research promotes the inclusion and equal citizenship for people with intellectual disabilities, says that until recently children with intellectual disabilities were separated from their peers in school. They were sent to segregated schools or classes and had few occasions to interact with their peers.
“Most people grow up in an environment where we are trained that individuals with intellectual disabilities are different,” he says. “It’s not surprising that the social connections aren’t there.”
As director of the Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship, Stainton works to remove those barriers. He promotes inclusion by researching policy and programs that foster inclusive employment and social opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities and developing educational programs. He says we need to shut off our natural instinct to look at this group in a paternalistic way and look at them the same way we would any other population.
“Less than 25 per cent of people with intellectual disabilities are employed and the vast majority live in poverty. Women experience abuse and sexual assault at a much higher rate than the general population,” says Stainton. “And the thing that is perhaps the most difficult is that they don’t have a lot of friends, the social network is not there. For any other population, these sociological and socioeconomic factors would be extremely concerning.”
All of this work complicates Stainton’s view of the Special Olympics movement. His son Gus is a Special Olympics athlete. Gus loves it and Stainton knows it is a big source of pride for the athletes. But he also wishes Gus could participate in organized sports alongside his classmates.
“If there were inclusive options for Gus, that is what we would prefer but the reality is that the local sport programs are not inclusive,” says Stainton. “They get competitive very quickly and he couldn’t compete at that level.”
The spirit of volunteerism
When UBC hosts the Games this July, Stainton hopes that students will think about issues of inclusion and some of the other issues that people with intellectual disabilities face.
“It’s a chance for students to connect with some of the athletes and increase their comfort level a bit. I hope it brings a little more understanding,” he says.
A handful of UBC students, faculty and staff are already involved in the 2014 Games. Some students are hosting training camps for B.C.’s Special Olympics athletes while others are working on the event itself, finding ways to reduce waste and create connections between Special Olympics and the campus community.
“On a day-to-day basis, there are few occasions at UBC for our community to interact and learn from individuals with intellectual disabilities,” says Louise Cowin, UBC’s Vice President, Students. “I hope our campus takes advantage of this opportunity to gain a deeper understanding so that we can increase the level of dialogue on the potential of people with intellectual disabilities, issues of inclusion and sport.”
Volunteer and engagement opportunities for UBC staff, faculty and students are still being developed but anyone interested in getting involved should fill out a form here.
The Special Olympics Canada 2014 Summer Games
For those involved in the Special Olympics movement in B.C., this is something they hope to achieve too.
“The Special Olympics Canada Summer Games had a significant impact the last time they were held in our province, raising awareness about the value of our movement and helping us grow,” says Dan Howe, Special Olympics British Columbia President & CEO.
The last time a national Special Olympics event was held in B.C. was in 1990, just 10 years after Special Olympics British Columbia opened its doors. The 1990 national event was also hosted at UBC. Now there are Special Olympics chapters in 55 communities throughout the province, supported by 3,300 volunteers and coaches, and offering 18 winter and summer sports.
“The National Games are coming back to B.C. at the perfect time, as we currently have incredible support that we can use to help us capitalize on the increased interest that we expect will come from this important event. I think we’re going to look back and see this as another key time in our history, just like in 1990.”
Special Olympics British Columbia wants members of the UBC community and the Lower Mainland to come out to the 2014 Games to see what the movement is all about. They hope some will be inspired to get involved in lasting ways as a volunteer in a local program.
“If we’re successful in doing all that we hope to with Team BC 2014 and with raising the profile of Special Olympics in our province, each one of the people we work with will live stronger and healthier lives, in communities that respect them and celebrate their abilities,” says Howe, a UBC alumnus.
Barry Eccleton is also a big advocate for volunteering with Special Olympics. One weekend soon after the Delta chapter opened, Jeff and Barry were at the local swimming pool and were approached by a young man in his 20s who was recovering from debilitating depression. By the end of the conversation, Barry had persuaded him to come and check out a bowling event. Today that man is completely immersed with the Special Olympics movement, coaching hockey, bowling and soccer. For him, it has been a healing experience.
“A good volunteer has an interest in the athletes, wants to see them excel and reach their full potential,” says Barry. “It’s a wonderful way of taking the focus off yourself.”
To learn more about the 2014 Summer Games at UBC, visit http://vancouver2014.ubc.ca/