Special Olympics Games -- different abilities, not disabilities
By Nattha Keenapan
(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on September 11, 2012)
BANGKOK, September 2012 – After recording the second-longest distance in the long jump at the National Games earlier this year, Pichit Panachai, 17, told the event’s referee that he wasn’t finished yet. He then jumped again and again, leaving the referee both dazed and confused.
“It wasn’t that he cared so much about the result,” said Chaianuchit Rakkanjananon, Pichit's coach and a Physical Education instructor at the Suphan Buri’s Panyanukul School, a state-run boarding school for children with intellectual disabilities such as cognitive delay, down syndrome and autism. “He just wanted to do his best.”
On July 27, as the 2012 Olympic Games kicked off in London, Pichit, who has short attention span and below-average IQ, and nearly 800 other children and youth with intellectual disabilities from across Thailand, gathered in Bangkok for the Special Olympics National Games. The four-day Games, held at Rajamangala National Stadium, provided the children with an opportunity to compete in athletics, swimming, bocce, football and table tennis competitions. In addition to giving the children a chance to play, learn and demonstrate both their athletic ability and courage, participation in the Games goes a long way in helping to build their self-confidence.
A determined Pichit, who spent several months training for the long jump after the National Disabled Games in March, leaped 4.8 metres in the event at the Special Olympics National Games to win the Gold Medal.
“We want these children to be able to take care of themselves, to be proud of themselves, to develop self-esteem and to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Rachaniwan Bulakul, the National Director of Special Olympics Thailand, a non-government organization which provides year-round sports training, athletic competitions and other related activities for more than 15,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in Thailand.
“Competing in sports serves as a bridge that helps bring them closer to these goals,” she said.
To help these children with disability to reach that potential, UNICEF provided bocce equipment used at the 2012 Special Olympics National Games this year. Bocce is one of a few sport disciplines that allows athletes of all disability level and ages to participate and provides them the opportunity to have social contact, develop physically and gain self-confidence.
While sports help inspire the special athletes to do their very best, they sometimes require assistance. On the running track, for example, coaches and volunteers waited to not only congratulate the athletes as they crossed the finish line, but also to ensure that they didn’t keep on running.
All the special athletes were awarded for their efforts, and all shared in the spirit and joy of the competition.
According to a National Statistical Office survey carried out in 2007, some 1.9 million people in Thailand have some form of disability, and about 600,000 children have intellectual disabilities.
“People with intellectual disabilities are clearly the most vulnerable group in society, and they have the fewest opportunities in life,” Rachaniwan said. “This is because they often have difficulty understanding what is happening around them and communicating with other people about their needs, their feelings and their rights.”
Intellectual disabilities are caused by various factors, including genetic conditions, problems during pregnancy, extreme malnutrition during the early years of life and accidents, said Rachaniwan, who noted that the majority of people with intellectual disabilities are poor, live in remote areas of the country and often have limited access to health services.
During the competition, hundreds of athletes lined up for health screenings inside the stadium, where medical volunteers checked their vision and hearing as well as the condition of their teeth and feet. Some of the children were given eye glasses for vision problems. The screenings also helped identify other health problems that may require additional medical attention.
For many children, it was the first time they have ever been examined by a doctor.
Chaianuchit, the Physical Education instructor teacher at Supanburi Panyanukul School, recalled that when his students had their first health screening at the Special Olympics several years ago, he learned that only one member of the football team had normal eyesight.
“Some had astigmatism, some were shortsighted and some had problems hearing, which meant that I had to shout in order to make myself understood,” Chaianuchit said.
Despite the barriers children with intellectual disabilities have to overcome in daily life, those who take part in sports at an early age clearly show improved physical fitness, as well as better communication and social skills. Such improvements are the result of the efforts, courage and dedication of the children themselves, as well that of their families and teachers, in a society that all too often underestimates the abilities of people with disabilities.
“I fight with my heart,” said Pichit, who also loves football, and who used to carry a football with him everywhere he went and play whenever he could. “Whether you win or lose makes no difference. It’s OK to lose because we can always try again. But my heart is all for it and I want to win.”
In 2007, Pichit and his schoolmates won the Football Gold Medal at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Beijing, the world’s largest sports event for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, Pichit is a role model at his school. He and other older students help younger children with their daily routines, such as personal hygiene, getting dressed or washing the dishes.
Over the years, many successful special athletes have been trained in public speaking and leadership, and have become “youth leaders” who help organize the sports competitions and train young athletes.
Nithi Kaewsawang, 22, a youth leader who helped with the organization of the Special Olympics National Games, took care of young athletes and gave media interviews during the Games, said the experience gained from sports and public speaking training has led to a better understanding among his friends and family members of the many things children with disabilities can achieve.
“In the past, I did not dare to talk to other people, but today I am totally different,” said Nithi who led other athletes in giving the oath at the start of the Special Olympics National Games – ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. “I want to invite young children (with intellectual disabilities) to compete. Don’t be afraid. Sports do not harm anyone.”