A Special Olympics initiative is offering people with profound learning difficulties the chance to take part in sporting activities. Peter Watts finds out how Freemasons are supporting the scheme
Niamh-Elizabeth Reilly recalls a particular moment from the training programme she organises for people with profound and multiple learning difficulties when a mother of one of the participants had become very emotional at an end-of-course Challenge Day.
‘The mother said her son was 33 years old and that she’d never had the chance to see him participate in anything, to achieve anything before,’ says Reilly. ‘She was overwhelmed by the support from the crowd, with everybody cheering him on and seeing how he relished that. He was doing something she didn’t know he was capable of – a grip-and-release ball task she’d never seen him do before. That’s the impact [the programme] can have.’
The Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) hopes to encourage more such moments through its award of a £60,000 grant to Special Olympics GB to expand the Motor Activity Training Programme (MATP), funding additional resources and training so it can reach several thousand people rather than a few hundred. The 12-week course is directed at adults and children who are unable to participate in regular Special Olympics sessions as their disabilities are so complex.
‘The course is targeted at people with profound and multiple learning difficulties,’ says Andrew Ross, Chairman of the MCF Charity Grants Committee. ‘Physical exercise makes us feel confident, healthier and more resilient, and this programme is for a group who would otherwise not have access to these benefits.’
What makes MATP unique is that it is open to adults and children who tend to have little involvement in any physical activity due to the huge levels of support their learning difficulties demand. ‘There is a great difficulty in communication and often there are associated health needs such as diabetes or epilepsy that are complex,’ says Reilly.
Taking place in centres and schools that already have the required equipment – toilets, hoists, changing beds – the training is geared towards improving motor skills, using sports-related activity as a lever towards gaining greater control of the body.
Reece Wallace, a 16-year-old with gross global developmental delay and epilepsy, who is visually impaired and unable to walk or communicate verbally, has been taking part in MATP courses since he was 11.
His mother, Melinda, explains how it helps: ‘The programme breaks down all the key skills in terms of standing, stepping in a walker, gripping, releasing. Reece is currently focused on pushing a disc down a slide to knock skittles over and this teaches him to place it on the slide and then let go with intention rather than just flinging it. These are life skills; they can benefit other things.’
Each course addresses upper body skills, lower body skills, greater motor skills and fine motor skills. Sessions are inspired by sports – from swimming to badminton – and adapted for the capability of the participant. Walking or wheelchair events can take place on a track or in water, while others encourage kicking, hitting or throwing balls, or striking pucks and shuttlecocks. Collectively, the activities can improve health and wellbeing, motor skills, social skills, physical fitness and functional ability.
The sessions not only help the participants, they also benefit parents, carers and society as a whole by allowing people with profound disabilities to engage with the outside world. ‘It’s a win-win situation,’ says Reilly. ‘It is about introducing people to the idea that there are people with complex needs out there. We are trying to provide meaningful opportunity and engagement for everybody.’
As life expectancy has improved, Reilly says that there are now more children with profound disabilities in Special Educational Needs schools. ‘There can be some discomfort and fear towards disability, and the best way to combat that is by engagement, so people learn that just because there is no verbal communication that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate in other ways.’
The MATP sessions have been running for several years and there is now a long waiting list. But the support from the MCF means that the number of adults and children benefiting from the programme over the next three years will rise from a few hundred to around 4,500.
The grant will be used to develop resources and train additional coaches, and help to create 60 new MATP groups in schools and community clubs and eight Youth Sport Trust schools, as well as Come and Try sessions.
‘We are creating resource cards so that teachers have all the information they need for the different elements of the course,’ says Reilly. ‘It’s a resource we will be able to use again and again. We will also be training more tutors – individuals who have experience of people with these conditions so they understand the complexity and are able to communicate with the participants, parents and carers.’
‘There can be some discomfort and fear towards disability, and the best way to combat that is by engagement’ Niamh-Elizabeth Reilly
For the participants, progress can be slow but the benefits are enormous. Each course ends with a Challenge Day, which is a fully branded Special Olympics event. ‘These individuals aren’t just improving their motor skills, they are also getting the chance to be Special Olympic athletes and showcase their skills at Challenge Days, complete with opening and closing ceremonies,’ says Reilly.
For children like Reece and their parents, these events are unique and unforgettable. ‘It’s lovely to get the children together in this great encouraging atmosphere, to see all these big smiles on their faces,’ says Reece’s mother Melinda, enthusiastically. ‘Everybody is clapping and cheering while they achieve their goals. There’s nothing else like that for them or for us.’