Recently the Special Olympic were held in Limerick hosted by the University of Limerick. This short article traces the event for a boy with severe intellectual disability (Joe Kelly) and his Special Olympics trainer (Geraldine Meagher). Geraldine works in Scoil Aonghusa in Cashel, Co. Tipperary, teaching sport and swimming to students with intellectual disability. She has been involved in Special Olympics for 35 years. Scoil Aonghusa is a co-educational school catering for students aged from four to eighteen, with provides pre-school for children over three years of age.
Geraldine’s aim is for the students to reach their full potential, allowing them to participate in school, home and community life to the maximum of their ability through promoting their confidence and self-esteem within sporting activities. Over the years she has seen first-hand the huge part Special Olympics plays in the lives of her students and their families, as it allows all students to participate in sport, engage in training and compete in competitions suitable for their level of ability. The motto in Scoil Aonghusa is ‘developing ability, diminishing disability’ and they see Special Olympics as a means to helping them achieve this goal. The benefits from Special Olympics are immeasurable, particularly for children’s self-esteem and confidence.
In June, eleven Scoil Aonghusa students were members of the Munster squad in the Ireland Special Olympics games and six of them took part in the sport called Motor Activities Training Programme (MATP). MATP aims to develop motor skills in athletes who have not yet gained, or may not be able to gain, the necessary strength to participate in structured sports. The focus of MATP is on training and participation, rather than on competition, but in reality it is so much more for the athletes and their families. The MATP affords individuals with severe/profound disabilities and their families the opportunity to participate and gain the physical, emotional and physiological benefits of sport. Families have the opportunity to cheer on their son/daughter on a local or national stage, often for the first time. The athletes who participate in MATP have greater physical and intellectual disability challenges than most other athletes and MATP provides them with the chance to show what they CAN DO and ensures their right/entitlement to participate.
From the athlete and his/her family’s perspective, it does not matter what level the sport is at—whether pushing a ball down a ramp or putting a beanbag into a box, the key is participation, and participating at their own level. Geraldine has no doubt that after a year of training, encouraging, positively reinforcing and involvement in sport, her athletes sit higher in their wheelchairs, walk taller, with their heads up and self-esteem far greater than before they started their sport. While Geraldine’s students may not be able to tell her in words, she sees this in their body language, facial expressions, smiles, and in the comments of their families.
The year’s hard work paid off, and nothing was more evident of this than the families’ and students’ excitement at this year’s Special Olympics Ireland games. The memories of the games will live on for a long time to come. As one parent said during the games, ‘it is their moment to shine’ and this sentiment captures the essence of the games—and the importance of the moment for the individual athletes and their families. We all need to have special moments in our lives—even more so when life presents daily challenges.
To view a snapshot of what the game meant to Joe and his family, please visit Youtube on: