Blasting onto the world stage at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Liam Malone took New Zealand sport by storm. A relative unknown, he excelled at the highest level and became a household name. Sophie Pascoe, already a well-known disabled athlete within Paralympian swimming, is now recognised as one of New Zealand’s best known and successful athletes.
So what has set them apart? The most obvious answer for many is that they are Paralympians, disabled, and therefore different.
However, it’s not that simple.
While both Sophie and Liam are the epitome of high performing athletes, committing hours and hours of training a week, regularly performing at national and international competitions, this, I would argue is not the reason for their successes.
Both of these athletes have repeatedly acknowledged the support of their parents and whānau and their attitudes as fundamental to their success, both in sport and life.
For Sophie, her grandad was a driving force teaching her to strive for her goals no matter what stood in the way.
Sophie says she was never treated like a “disabled child” when she was growing up. She credits her family for her resilience, work ethic and determination.Women’s Day, January 2016
Similarly, Liam’s family and friends. Liam never considered himself disabled as he played rugby, mountain biked, snowboarded and ran.
But it wasn’t easy with society and others always putting barriers in place, albeit unconscious at times.
So for a young athlete, who may also be disabled, how do they navigate through these barriers to succeed?
Parent and whānau support
Parental and whānau support is essential. In our work at dsport, we actively encourage everyone to be involved in our Youth Group activities. Making activities family-focussed and fun is central to what we do. We do this intentionally and we have an ulterior motive as well.
Although Statistics NZ state 1 in 4 New Zealanders are disabled, for young people with physical disabilities, it more like 1 in 65. It’s a niche market! For many parents, their child is the only one they know in their family, school or community who has a disability. They have a limited reference point as to how to parent a child with a disability. Most support comes in the manner of medical and clinic support, rather than lifestyle, social and sport.
At dsport we see our Youth Group as an opportunity for parents to network, share ideas and have a kindred voice. Parents often spend time sharing experiences and having those conversations they find difficult to have with other parents. Like all parents, parents of a child with a disability face similar challenges – some days are good, others not so. Some experiences and opportunities are great, while others could do with improvement. Most importantly, their children are children, challenging as all children are, pushing their parent’s buttons and challenging boundaries.
I have heard from some of our parents their frustration of having to treat their child differently in the eyes of others, because they are disabled. This burden of social expectation does not help the parents, nor the child.
Our parents share their highs and lows. They laugh at what their children do or how they do it. Jokes are shared. They offload. Perhaps not PC, but it’s real and it’s important, for their sanity and their child’s future.
What we have observed from our Youth Group is the incredible differences in a child’s confidence, self-belief and ability to try new experiences, based on their parent’s attitude. Do not get us wrong, we are fully conscious of the fact many of our young athletes have had a hard start to life. Many were born prematurely, others having near-death experiences early in life, but by the time they join us for our activities, they are vibrant, excited and engaged young people.
So, the first barrier to overcome for a parent with a child with a disability is their own bias, and then those of others. For most it is likely to be unconscious, or at worst their belief that they need to continue to always protect their child. Look at the examples of Sophie’s and Liam’s whānau who did not treat them any differently to other children and allowed them to be the best they could be. Treat your child as a child, let them try and succeed, and try and fail. It’s all part of their learning process. You’d be surprised what may come.
Recognise your limitations and work around them
We cannot all be rocket scientists nor can we all be world champions, so why does society treat disabled people as somehow wanting? Every one of us has limited abilities whether academic, physical or aspirational. Having a physical disability is only an external manifestation of something different. And again as proven by Sophie and Liam it may not actually be a limitation.
It’s well known the role of a parent is to provide food, shelter and safety for a child. To teach and educate a child is also key. So too, to provide guidance, direction and support.
Our experience with dsport has identified a common trait of most young people in sport. This is that a parent’s interest or experiences often dictate the sports and active recreation the child is exposed to. Totally understandable, given the time and commitment you will be required to make for your child’s participation, and your role as a teachers and educator. However, what happens when this can’t occur? As a parent, how do you choose?
Firstly, it’s not your choice! Let the choice be your child’s. Allow them to experiment. Let them try different sports and active recreation until one captures their imagination. It doesn’t matter if you believe they can’t do it. Let them try, they will surprise you. Support and nurture their interest. Join groups such as dsport to expose your child to different activities and opportunities.
Over the last 3 years, we have had a regular ice-skating session for our Youth Group. To most people this may seem silly for young people in wheelchairs, using walking frames, or who have trouble walking. For us it was an opportunity to push boundaries and challenge perceptions. All the kids got on the ice every time. Some with ice-skates on, some not. The crew at the ice-rink were fabulous. It was no problem. Who didn’t get on the ice and give it a try? Most of the adults. We were the ones uncomfortable by the activity, scared of falling, of looking foolish and perhaps bruising our egos. So I ask, whose limitations held them back?
While we are unlikely to see para ice-skating at the Paralympic Games, we now have a far greater chance of these families to continue to enjoy this activity because we have opened their eyes and mind to it.
Let your child play
Like all of us, young disabled athletes need to recognise their limitations and identify a work-around.
One of the most enduring impressions I have of young disabled athletes is how innovative they are. Letting a young person work out a solution to a challenge provides them with confidence and self-worth. It also provides them with the skills necessary to navigate the world when parents and whānau are not around.
SportNZ have recently recognised the importance of play in child development. Anthropologists have long acknowledged play as central to the development of society and culture. Play provides an opportunity for children to learn and explore, work within boundaries and rules, and also be innovative. This final point is vital for young disabled athletes: innovation. Providing the structure and support for innovation by your child will enable them. It will give them the ability and confidence to identify ways and means to achieve their goals. It will put them in good stead for their future.
Play, however, does come with conditions, many of which I have seen parents of disabled athletes falter and pause. Play means trying and sometimes failing. It means trying and sometimes falling. It means parents cannot be in control. Don’t let your need to protect override your child’s need to learn and experience.
Embrace the opportunities you and your child have through sport and active recreation. Don’t be constrained by other parent’s opinions or organisations’ or clubs’ lack of knowledge. Accept the challenge of working with these people to breakdown perceptions and create a new narrative.
Don’t feel obliged to only try disabled sports. Don’t get me wrong, these are great and provide pathways to the Paralympic Games. But they are often limited to larger centres where there are sufficient numbers to play these sports, especially wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.
Sophie is a swimmer and Liam was a runner. These sports happen everywhere, in every community. Find a club or group locally. This makes your life easier and will also create a social network which may well open other doors for your child.
Understand not everyone has your experience, knowledge and understanding around disability and disability sport. Most people just don’t know what to do. Make it easy for them by helping them understand what your child wants, what they can do, and what help you need of them.
So what can we learn from the parents and whānua of Sophie and Liam? Be the parent who allows their child to explore, experience and fail. Support as a whānau by being there to support them in their endeavours and to celebrate with them their successes.
Image Credit: Photosport