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Breaking The Stigma Of Intellectual Disability Through Sport

11/08/2017 14:11 | Updated 5 days ago
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With the Special Olympics National Games - the largest sports event to take place in GB for people with an intellectual (learning) disability taking place in Sheffield this week, now is the perfect opportunity to discuss the immense challenges facing young people with intellectual disabilities.

There is a misconception amongst those in the mainstream world about people with intellectual disabilities (ID), due to a lack of understanding. Often for a person with ID, their disability is seen before their personal traits, which leads to the perception that they cannot do certain things. This is wrong.

It leads to the isolation of those with ID and thus the lack of opportunity to take part arises. A shocking number of young people do not, or do not have the opportunity, to take part in sport during their school years - and this continues into adulthood with more than 80% of adults with ID not achieving daily recommended levels of physical activity.

I have experienced the negative impact these perceptions can have on a young person, and the barriers they present to involvement in sport, first hand with my brother Will, who has Down's Syndrome. He has often felt isolated, and that people judge him as soon as they see him, based on his intellectual disability.

Play Unified, an initiative by Special Olympics GB and the Youth Sport Trust, has helped my brother and thousands of others like him.

People now accept Will more and allow him to join in. He jokes with his friends and I truly believe they do not regard him as a 'disabled person', they see him as Will. Play Unified has helped break down the barriers of isolation Will had previously experienced, and provides an inclusive opportunity to take part, something that has not always been the case for him.

Play Unified aims to change perceptions of and attitudes towards young people with intellectual disabilities. With young people aged 14-25 at its core, the campaign has been rolled out in 200 schools nationwide in its first year, involving more than 18,000 young people.

Play Unified is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to understanding, acceptance and friendship - a principle that we have seen come to life as Tadcaster Grammar School through our involvement in the initiative.

The school community feels more inclusive and friendly. The students are accepting each other and helping each other reach goals. Within the next academic year, I hope to expand our Play Unified campaign, set up a committee, recruit more students and, in time, lead on a similar programme in another school.

The power of sport should never be underestimated, least of all amongst young people.
I created an inclusive swimming club called the Stingrays for local young people, including my brother, and an after-school dance club.

The benefits of joining each club have been seen to grow over time. The improvement in skills is very evident for every young person, they all work so hard to achieve their goals. Also, the growth in self-esteem, communication skills and confidence shines through in all aspects of their lives, whether it be in the club or outside.

One of the very first members of Stingrays started the group with a vocabulary of around 10 words. She was shy, under confident and had unfortunately experienced some negative exclusion. Now just one year on, not only has she improved greatly with her swimming skills but also has grown massively in confidence. She now talks freely to other pool members and staff as she enters the pool.

As part of the Pass On Your Passion campaign, an initiative from North Yorkshire Sport, I handed the baton to her to empower her. She wrote a swimming session and acted as coach, instructing and helping all the other swimmers with their skills. We were all so proud of her. She then went on to write a presentation all about her coaching session and delivered this to her class at school. Her parents are incredibly proud of her, as am I and the whole team.

This just shows how we can develop the potential inside every person with ID.

We must strive to create a more inclusive world. The first step to this is helping to close the gap between opportunity given to those with ID and those without. This would mean people with ID being able to achieve their goals and lead fulfilling lives.

The key is to provide opportunities, make reasonable adjustments and then, with appropriate support, people with ID can achieve anything they set their minds to.

To think that today's young people with ID are still feeling marginalised is terrible. Around 8 in 10 young people with ID have been bullied, and 56% have cried due to bullying. This must change.

The best advice I can give to any young people feeling isolated is don't let what others think change your goals. Stay motivated and prove the initial perceptions of others wrong. This will help break down the barriers and you can help inspire others who may be in a similar situation.

Together we can break stigmas, break down barriers and create a unified generation.

HuffPost UK Lifestyle has launched EveryBody, a new section calling for better equality and inclusivity for people living with disability and invisible illness. The aim is to empower those whose voices are not always heard and redefine attitudes to identity, lifestyle and ability in 2017. We'll be covering all manner of lifestyle topics - from health and fitness to dating, sex and relationships.

We'd love to hear your stories. To blog for the section, please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with the subject line 'EveryBody'. To flag any issues that are close to your heart, please email natasha.hinde@huffingtonpost.com, again with the subject line 'EveryBody'.

Join in the conversation with #HPEveryBody on Twitter and Instagram.

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