During this time when we are asking others to appropriately educate oneself and accept those with disabilities in particular autism I had found myself thinking what is my favourite story of true inclusion. When Hannah and us as parents felt completely at home with her autism and disability. I had blogged this story before a few years back however I wanted to re-tell it during this time. It is a story that incorporates her autism and developmental disability together. While it’s a re-tell it makes me feel happy and not much these days has that ability to bring pure happiness.
A STORY OF TRUE INCLUSION FOR ALL – A SPECIAL OLYMPICS MIRACLE
It was a number of years back. Hannah was still in high school. Her ability to tolerate noise and commotion was very limited although it was improving. We saw as she was able to attend school dances and somehow certain noises and celebrations was something she not only tolerated but was beginning to enjoy. We started to see that she craved relationships. It was around that time that we were starting to add some weekly events in her life with respite workers. We knew the local Special Olympics head coach and other coaches. All are welcome in the Altona Panthers chapter. All bodies – abled, partially abled or disabled. All competitive levels, all needs with or without personal support staff. The middle school gymnasium was full to capacity!
We used one of our respite workers to take Hannah and be her environmental interpreter during this time. I was so anxious as I thought about how she would deal or not deal with the noise, the cheering, the action. It did not take long for my anxiety to be put to rest as it was clear that Hannah was the belle of the Special O ball! It did not take much longer to realize that Hannah was there for the party atmosphere and for the socialization. Something we had not seen before. And not so much for the athletics (she perhaps takes after her non-athletic mama here).
I have said before that Hannah is extremely passive, hyper-sensitive to movement and extremely slow in most things she does. That includes walking and running is not something she is able to do. If she is happy her run is a step, hop, hop, gallop, small leap and she gets where she needs maybe a teeny bit faster. She ends up going more vertical and maybe even a touch backwards than forward moving so there’s that.
After some time had passed and we knew Special O was an extremely successful event for our girl the invitation came out to compete in the Special O track and field meet in Winnipeg. I ignored the paper as I didn’t think there was an event that included a step, hop, hop, gallop, small leap that was measured vertically and slightly backwards. However it didn’t take long for the head coach to remind me of the paper brought home and that Hannah should sign up. Ha!! I didn’t feel there would be any way but when I learnt that joining the track team meant that her Special O time would be extended a couple of months so I thought sign this girl up!
Hannah began training which meant learning to run, learning what ‘on your mark get set …” meant and learnt to run at the sound of a gun and to try to desensitize its noise. We worked on staying in her running lane – to which she got irritated when we corrected her, and taught her to run ACROSS the finish line – in her autistic mind she could NOT pass that line and it became an issue each and every time. A huge deal with LOTS of work. But we did work at it. And her respite workers did as well as her school staff. All hands were on deck to get this girl to the track meet!
But when I saw some additional paperwork about her running events I read that her relay must run in “less than 30 seconds”. Let’s re-visit that last sentence. “I read” Okay I felt Cinderella’s coach had turned back into a pumpkin. There was no way that Hannah could run her short relay in 30 seconds. When I talked to the coach about this he informed that I had mis-read it and it was needed to run in “more than 30 seconds” so all could be a part. This was the race for her! Inclusion-o-rama.
The day of the race came and we all excitedly drove off to the stadium and met her team there! When it was her turn to run her race the coaches came to get her and mentioned that us as parents could not come on the field but we could stand on the sidelines for environmental interpreting if needed. I was so nervous! The benches were full and so many of the athletes were extremely fast and talented! Despite the kindness and and friendliness of Special Olympics we felt very small and overwhelmed at that time. Kind of ‘what have we done-ish?”
Because of her age, size and race time she was kind of in a category of her own but raced it with two other younger girls. To see her small body standing there on the large field without any support workers was unbelievable, overwhelming and emotional.
She stood at the starting line with her opponents flicking her fingers and looking sideways. The announcer announced the beginning of the race by shouting, “On your mark, get set” and *BANG* when the pistol! The other two girls starting running, beautifully staying in their lane. But Hannah stood there alone. We all cheered for her to go. Us as parents, her coaches, her family and her Altona Panthers team and probably many others! Run Hannah!!! RRRRUUUUNNNNN!!!!! Finally Hannah looking looking rather perturbed started walking, crossing every lane possible. She stopped a few times I’m sure feeling extremely overwhelmed. One of the track volunteers standing beside us on the sidelines beside us shouted “Over here Hannah! Over here” – meaning run here to the finish line. But Hannah took this suggestion literally and walked over to us a few feet from the finish line. We all pointed to the finish line and shouted and cheered and encouraged her to go to the finish line! Hannah now even more perturbed that she misunderstood and now had to go further walked toward the finish line and stopped her one inch before the line!! As we cheered and encouraged her to cross the line she shot daggers in her eyes at us and probably argued but then she did it!!
I would like to say the crowd went wild but I don’t really know. We went wild! We were so proud of her, her coaches, her family and her team were proud of her and she was a delight to watch during this race! Even though it was a little unusual we felt her success during this race.
At the awards ceremony because she was kind of in a class of her own she won a medal. When they called her name one of the Olympians said “Hey – that’s the girl that walked the whole way”. I was about to say, “…. AND?!!” but then remembered where we were. Hannah climbed the podium by herself and accepted her award. Through her emotions of being overwhelmed she powered through and was so very, very happy.
I felt a deep sadness as we left the stadium away from the special olympians and support. And more sadness as we entered ‘typical world’. So maybe I question is this a story of true inclusion? My sadness had no chance to steep as all I could see was Hannah hugging herself and smiling all the way home!
Hannah has attended the Special Olympics track and field every year after this. She has added on additional relays, shot put and long jump. Every year this event is one of my favourite events of the year. The inclusion, the cheering for all and the joy is infectious. So infectious that awhile back I joined up as a Special Olympics coach. Hannah still attends (not in Covid restriction time) with her respite worker and loves every minute of it.
If after the restrictions have lifted you find yourself able and willing to help in an organization that is so extremely rewarding please consider joining up in Special Olympics.