Written By: Leo Spall 17/7/15
“People who don’t really know me think I would never be able to do this. They don’t quite understand people with special needs and don’t always want to know people with special needs – they think we’re stupid and we’re not. At all.”
Leanne Peters is a Special Olympics cyclist for the British team and under no illusions about the way many view those with intellectual disabilities.
A sufferer of cerebral palsy and a learning disability that makes it hard for her to retain and process new information, Peters is not unusual in having been given a hard time as a result.
Take any random sample of the other 114 British team members who will be competing in the World Games in Los Angeles from July 26 and you will find similar stories.
Georgina Maton, 25, a dressage rider, said: “I did a little bit of mainstream schooling and then they put me in a special needs school. I found it hard, judging myself, and other people in the class [judging me]. They made my life a little bit harder. They made fun of me.
“They [people] didn’t understand and I isolated myself, but I used to come out of horse riding buzzing and we worked out that was the answer.
“My literacy skills, communication skills [cause problems]. I have a slight stammer and had to have physio and speech therapy so I was, half the time, in and out of lessons.
“Additionally, they [the school] brought support in to help with additional equipment and some of it was jealousy. It set me aside.”
It is an age-old story of people marked out as different in some way getting a tough time at school, but Maton’s reaction – and that of so many of her teammates – perhaps explains why they are the athletes who will fly to America next Tuesday.
They have refused to accept the role of the downtrodden, using sport as a way to fight back and prove people wrong.
“A horse doesn’t judge you like a person can,” Maton said. “I found school not the best and horses were an easier option. Eventually I wanted to prove people wrong and show what I could achieve.”
Kayaker Steven Dodd, 40, from Plymouth, had to be taken into care as a child, and found his autism made school life difficult. “I was picked on: name calling, the whole rats,” he said.
“I have a problem: I cannot read facial expressions; I can’t tell if someone is joking with me or not; I can’t tell if I’m being bullied.
“That is why sometimes I sit alone because I’ve never been able to communicate with people, never been able to go into certain situations. I don’t know which way to go, what the right protocol is to communicate.”
“I found school not the best and horses were an easier option. I wanted to prove people wrong and show what I could achieve.”
This is where Special Olympics comes in. The charity provides an avenue for people with intellectual disabilities to express themselves, to feel secure thanks to the support on offer and increase their confidence.
Dodd, Peters and Maton were encouraged to be themselves, to feel comfortable in their own skin and it has really made a difference.
“Special Olympics changed my life,” they all said with conviction, and they were not isolated in crediting the impact made by the charity – just about everyone ESPN spoke to in the GB team said the same.
“I was quite shy and Special Olympics has sent me another way,” Peters added. “I am now more confident going up to people, chatting to them, telling them about Special Olympics and what it can do for them.”
Special Olympics really does live up to its name; not only does the charity give its athletes support, it also provides a forum for meeting others who don’t judge each other – and who frequently become friends.
Take badminton player Elizabeth Haywood, who has Down syndrome. “I have played since I was at school and got lessons there. I have always enjoyed it – it has given me some purpose and helped with bullies at school,” she said.
“It helped me to get away from that, play and meet new people. I have made lots of new friends.”
Haywood is not alone in her ambition of expanding her group of friends in LA, nor in her excitement to be meeting people from around the globe. For her and so many others, a whole new world has opened up.