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Athletes With Learning Disabilities Back In Olympic Fold

July 25, 2012

Like other elite athletes, Victoria Bromley exhibits impressive commitment and drive. Since first taking up table tennis at the age of 10 she has won a string of competitions. Now at 26, she is training upwards of 25 hours a week in preparation for the Paralympic Games.

Bromley, who lives in Wolverhampton and works full time as a carer, is one of nine British athletes with a learning disability to qualify for the 2012 Games. She is clearly thrilled. “It was such an enormous surprise,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m training really hard, and really looking forward to going to London.”

The Games will be the first for 12 years in which athletes with learning disabilities will be allowed to compete. A controversial ban was imposed by the International Paralympics Committee after the Sydney Games in 2000, which saw the Spanish basketball team stripped of its gold medals after some members were accused of faking learning disabilities. The lifting of the ban means people with learning disabilities are now permitted to compete in certain events in three sports: swimming, athletics and table tennis.

“It’s so good that learning disability is allowed back in,” says Bromley, who has a mild disability that affects her ability with literacy and numeracy. While qualifying for the Paralympic Games is a formidable achievement for Bromley, she says she could not have done it without the support of her partner, friends, teachers, and in particular, Special Olympics – a global organisation that works year-round with people with learning difficulties.

“When I was starting out, Special Olympics was very supportive. I learned the basics [of my sport] with them, I have met athletes with different disabilities, and I have travelled to other countries to compete,” says Bromley.

With worldwide attention now focused on the Olympic and Paralympic Games, learning disability campaigners are eager to put the organisation and what it does on the public’s radar. Karen Wallin, chief executive of Special Olympics Great Britain (SOGB), established in 1978 as part of the Special Olympics movement that began in the US a decade earlier, says: “People often get confused between Special Olympics and Paralympics. But Special Olympics is not an event. It doesn’t happen every four years. What we do goes on in communities across the country, from the bottom up, all year and every day.”

SOGB works with 8,000 athletes in England, Scotland and Wales across a range of sports. Some go on to become elite, but first and foremost the organisation and its volunteers are about using sport as a way to build the confidence and self-esteem of people across a range of learning disabilities. “It’s about helping people to reach their full potential – whatever level that might be,” says Wallin.

She adds that athletes such as Bromley, who have been helped on a pathway to elite sport by Special Olympics, are “extraordinary examples” of what the charity contributes, but she is keen to emphasise the “vital, day-to-day work” that goes on. “People with learning disabilities are often isolated. Many are bullied from an early age. They are more likely to be unemployed and to be obese. Special Olympics began as a way to help people make friends, but with so many challenges facing disabled people it has become about so much more than that. It should be a national priority to improve the health of people with learning disabilities. There are 1.2 million people in this country [England] with a learning disability so as an organisation we are only scratching the surface. Sport should not be seen as a luxury.”

While the organisation is recognised as “part of the Olympic family”, it does not receive any funding from the International Olympic Committee or the Games. Most income comes from donations and sponsorships.

Echoing disability organisations such as Mencap that have campaigned fervently against abuse and discrimination against people with learning difficulties and their exclusion from the Paralympics, Wallin says another reason that Special Olympics warrants greater attention is because it helps to combat damaging prejudices and misunderstandings. “Bullying is out of control. People with learning disabilities are often told what they can’t do. We are about telling them what they can do.”

SOGB runs or has alliances with more than 130 sports clubs, works closely with local authorities to improve sports provision, has thousands of volunteers, and oversees or is connected with an array of events. In 2013 athletes will compete in global events including the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea in January, and the Special Olympics National Summer Games in August. Many of the athletes compete in mainstream sporting events alongside non-disabled people, from school sports to local club and regional events.

Many Special Olympics athletes were chosen as torchbearers for the 2012 Olympic Games, including Owen Miller, 21, a runner from Dunfermline who has autism. He became involved with Special Olympics when he was 14 and came close to qualifying for the 2012 Paralympics. “I’ve done loads of competitions and I get to meet new people all the time. It’s brilliant,” he says of the organisation.

Andy Carr, 26, from Solihull, also has autism and qualified for the 1500m at the Paralympic games – although he won’t be able to compete due to injury. He says: “My PE teacher at school got me into running and took me to a local club. I then ran in mainstream and Special Olympics races. It was about building confidence.”

As public spending cuts kick in, councils and sports facilities are under greater financial pressure. SOGB is being approached by more and more families with disabled youngsters for help. Wallin says: “The thing that needs to be talked about more is that [statutory] support for people with learning difficulties is a lottery depending on where they are in the country. I’m staggered by the number of people who don’t get the advice and help they need – and cuts are definitely making it worse.”

Jim Blair, vice-chairman of SOGB’s health and wellbeing committee, says a central aspect of the organisation is the deep bonds and support that it fosters between families and communities as well as the benefits to participants’ health. “Special Olympics benefits individuals of all ages and ability levels – from those with low motor abilities to highly skilled athletes. [It] embodies the true Olympic spirit,” he says.

SOGB’s national volunteer manager, Gaye Barber, says she hopes having the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London will help to raise the awareness and public profile of Special Olympics and inspire young people with learning disabilities to become involved with sport. “That would be quite a legacy,” she says.

For Bromley, springboarding from Special Olympics to the Paralympic Games has both a personal and a wider significance. “It would be wonderful to come back with a medal, but I want to be able to say to young [disabled] people, ‘Don’t let anything stop you achieving what you dream of. I didn’t.'”

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