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A real achievement

PUBLISHED: 14:45 21 January 2014 | UPDATED: 14:45 21 January 2014

Athletes take part in the Special Olympics Norfolk Athletics. Picture: Denise Bradley

Athletes take part in the Special Olympics Norfolk Athletics. Picture: Denise Bradley

copyright: Archant 2013

Whether boosting self-esteem, encouraging inclusion or enabling skilled athletes to compete at the highest level – for those with a learning disability, Special Olympics Norfolk is an amazing organisation.

In Norfolk, it has been running for 15 years, and in the past 12 months, a new committee has set itself a target of developing its work even further, adding more sports and attracting new members. For the organisation’s secretary Linda Shiner, it was while working in Africa that she became more aware of the Special Olympics movement.

“I was working abroad in Namibia as part of an education project and became involved with a team from Special Olympics who were also working out there,” she says.

“When I returned home last year having retired I decided to find out more about Special Olympics Norfolk and to get involved. At that time it was running on a shoestring so, together with the long-standing chairman, we formed a new committee and very quickly began moving forward.”

Through a combination of supporting existing clubs and launching new ones, working closely with local support groups, carers, sports clubs and coaches, there is now a growing list of activities on offer. As well as gymnastics, Boccia (similar to bowls and petanque) and athletics, they are in the process of establishing cricket, swimming, tennis and golf.

“In October we put on a taster day at the University of East Anglia, to see how popular different activities might be. More than 150 people turned up, which is just fantastic.”

You have to be six years old to train and eight years old to compete with the group, and there is no upper age limit. As well as the obvious physical benefits of participating in sport, Linda says its impact is far reaching.

“People with learning disabilities are not always very obviously visible and tend to be less well provided for. As well as giving them the chance to get fit and challenge themselves physically, Special Olympics gives them the chance to socialise and be a part of something,” she says. “It also makes families incredibly proud. When you have a child with a learning disability it can feel like you spend a lot of time being told about all the problems they will have, what they won’t be able to do. This is celebrating something that they can do. To see them standing on a podium with a medal round their necks is a fabulously proud moment for everyone involved.”

Linda says it is key to provide opportunities for those of all abilities and to encourage those who want to go further by competing.

“For some people, it is just about taking part, but for those at the other end of the scale who are very skilled, it inspires them to train to reach the highest level they can, competing at the National Games – and then ultimately, if they can, the World Games. Next year it is in Los Angeles and we have put three people forward to take part, so we will wait and see.”

(Panel)

Special Olympics was founded in the 1960s by American Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who - inspired by her sister with learning disabilities - decided she wanted to do something positive to help those with a similar condition.

Shocked at the unfair treatment and lack of places to play for children with learning disabilities, she took action and held her first summer day camp for young people in her own backyard. The goal was simple - to learn what activities these children could do – and not dwell on what they could not do.

Her pioneering work continued and she was a driving force in President John F Kennedy’s White House panel working with people with learning disabilities. Her vision eventually grew into the Special Olympics movement, and on July 9, 1968, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games was held in Chicago with 1000 people competing from across America and Canada. Today, Special Olympics operates throughout the world and next year marks the 14th Special Olympics World Summer Games.

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