We have just come back from another Special Olympics, not just with 33 medals but eye-opening experiences both for the special athletes and the able athletes who competed in the unified sports.
Going to Abu Dhabi was a life-changer for everyone involved because people abroad understand more about disability and the treatment is different. On this last trip some of our coaches were originally special athletes, and to hear them imparting to athletes is amazing – and yet some of them cannot get jobs.
That is another area where corporate Jamaica can get more involved because they are missing out on incredible, able people – one difference compared to ‘normal’ Jamaicans is that so many of our athletes now have Olympic medals! And it is not just the winning and the medals, but the life experience we gain together
Winning team needs greater public support
I have been with Special Olympics for 17 years and to work here everyday is to be inspired. Nigel Davis is one of our former athletes and he went as a coach for the first time and his athletes did so well competing on synthetic flooring, yet here in Jamaica they can only train on asphalt!
Regardless of resources our athletes are well-trained. We train hard for each Special Olympics by picking a team two years in advance and we train them at least twice a week or even three times a week for volleyball.
UNICEF came aboard in 2016 with a focus to develop unified sports. This time we sent five unified teams in football, basketball, badminton and volleyball and we stuck with our mandate to have females included.
UNICEF supported diversification, expansion
We recruit unified partner athletes from the same communities where the athletes come from and they must be a mentor to that athlete for the duration of being in the programme, but some of the athletes mentor them more! One girl went over there and she learned signing from her special athlete who had taught her little by little.
The coaches, like Allan, are really our unsung heroes. You have to love it and once you get involved with the athletes they make it worth your while. A girl who is a partner athlete came to me to say thanks and told me, “Mrs. Bell I have a family now.”
We could not have asked for more from going to Abu Dhabi. The athletes really appreciated it and people really took them to their hearts. Our athletes are going away next month to Ontario, Canada for the first Special Olympics Youth Games and we will be sending unified teams again – bringing able-bodied and special youth together.
Bringing able-bodied and special youth together
I think we have come such a far way with Special Olympics in Jamaica and changing attitudes. Many parents are not accepting of their children’s disabilities and often instead choose to send them to a regular school where they struggle, but their children being involved in Special Olympics is like a gateway for them.
A mother whose child is now one of our special athletes told me, “I can’t let my child mix with these children but Mrs. Bell, you know something, I saw my son sitting in the stands with the other athletes and I could see him behaving so well.”
It is those moments which create acceptance, which is why for all this work it feels like my job is the best in the world!
UNICEF recently signed a new $12-million partnership with Special Olympics that will enable them to reach more children across Jamaica. This includes the construction of new playgrounds; early childhood level unified sport; healthy athlete screening; family health education; and training of Special Olympics staff and volunteers.