Views And Reviews

Who's got learning disabilities?

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 05 March 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:664
  1. T Heller

    Great big tears were running down my face as the athlete I had been watching fell into the arms of her coach at the finish of the home straight. I was hoping that nobody would notice that the stadium doctor had succumbed to the high emotion of the event. In front of a crowded grandstand hundreds of Special Olympians were performing extraordinary athletic achievements. The young woman who had caught my attention was a blind athlete taking part in the 100 m walk. She had her own coach a pace in front of her, walking backwards and calling instructions. The relationship between that athlete and her coach was of such intensity and the effort so great that it touched a chord inside me and as they embraced just past the finishing line my tears welled up.

    Is it patronising to put on these events and to pretend that this really is the Olympics? What is going on when nearly 2000 people with learning disabilities and their coaches and escorts come to Sheffield for a week of sporting activities? Enthusiasts for the Special Olympics movement would say that it's a jamboree to celebrate the development of sporting potential in those who are disadvantaged in many other ways in our society. Others hold the view that it is all a charade and that it marks out people with learning disabilities as being different. They insist that integrated events should be encouraged and that we are engaging in sentimental voyeurism.

    I had volunteered to do a couple of days as the doctor in the athletics stadium because I had some spare time at the end of my holiday. I didn't know quite what to expect, so I rang up the medical director to find out the details. When I asked what sort of gear I would have available he replied. “Oh, you will have a blue polo shirt and a red hat.” In the end all the injuries were exactly as you would expect from 1000 people exerting themselves to their maximum energy. Perhaps this was my first learning experience. What had (???) expected? I had fallen into the trap that people with learning disabilities would be fragile and be in need of specialised medical attention all the time.

    It became apparent to me that physical development through sport and the striving for personal achievement were a large part (???) the lives of many of these special athlete (???) exactly as it is for many of us who don't carry the label of having learning disabilities. consider my own physical activities to be an important part of my life so why should I (???) surprised that it's important for the Special Olympians? I am the one with difficult learning, struggling to understand this. From talking to the athletes I learnt that they were feeling about the same as I did when finished my first marathon. One young runner had just got a medal for his event. His teammate was going to shake his hand, but that was not enough for the athlete who jumped at the team mate and ended up being carried and cuddled in ecstasy. I think that I learnt something about how to enjoy myself. If ever I complete another marathon watch out for me at the end. I won't be keeping my feelings to myself.

    The coaching, training, and regular build up of strength and stamina, and the development of new skills that had gone on with the athletes had obviously had a beneficial influence on their individual lives. It was apparent that their feelings about themselves and their relationship with their trainers, escorts, and fellow competitors were getting an enormous boost from the sports events. The events which I observed during the Special Olympics seemed to be dynamic proof of the way in which concepts of positive health should involve both physical and health should involve both physical and mental health and wellbeing. These special thusiasm and pride, they were working towards being fully healthy. Perhaps we can all learn that it's not just elite athletes who can gain from the exploration of our physical limits.

    The events were staged like any other sports events with rules, official timekeepers, heats, finals, victors, and medal ceremonies. Some of the people involved seemed to be fiercely competitive and others less so. How important is this competitiveness? What about the feelings of the people who don't win? Wouldn't it be better to be collaborative? The Special Olympics has awakened this debate for me and I have learnt something about my own competitive nature.

    * “It's not just elite athletes who can gain from the exploration of our physical limits.”

    There were hundreds of volunteers escorting the athletes, helping them prepare for the events, explaining what was going on, and helping with the transport and the catering. Thousands of people from Sheffield became involved. The buzz and sense of camaraderie were amazing or perhaps I shouldn't be amazed. Perhaps this sort of event gives a glimpse of the true nature of the human spirit which is denied at other times by the structure of society and our own limited imaginations. Perhaps all these volunteers were not being patronising, but were genuinely glimpsing for themselves how important it is to relearn the warmth and generosity of giving and learning. Perhaps it is mainstream society that has the learning disabilities.

    The Special Olympics has exposed some of my own learning disabilities and I hope that I will incorporate some of my new attitudes into my regular work. The debate continues whether integrated events would have been preferable, but for that blind athlete and her coach I think I know what the answer would be.

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