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Joanne O’Riordan: Embracing disability sport – without the pity

The GAA has shown how serious it is about wheelchair hurling and let's hope others follow

Sultan Kakar of Munster and Shane Curran of Connacht during the M Donnelly wheelchair hurling interprovincial All-Ireland finals at IT Blanchardstown in 2016. Photograph: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Pity is the worst, isn’t it? When people feel sorry for you, and treat you like a charity. It drives me crazy. All my life I have grown up in an environment where sorrow and pity didn’t exist in our vocabulary. I was just like every other child, and included in anything my family did.

So when I got my first wheelchair it allowed my family to throw me into goals and kick footballs at me like there was no tomorrow. And I loved it.

But you could see neighbours and family friends look at my siblings kick footballs at me the same way you would look at a dog in pain. But I didn’t care.

When I was younger my family signed me up for disability sports. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep the night before. I got up that morning, put on my Ruud van Nistelrooy jersey and headed out. I got to play with other kids who were wheelchair-users just like me.

I felt a sense of arrogance at the time – my brothers used to blast footballs at me all the time so no matter what happened that day I knew I would have brought a competitive spirit.

I walked in the door and I was disappointed at the turnout. I was 10 and felt like the whole world should have stopped to watch me play ball. I went out there regardless and gave it my all. Soon I was warned about my competitive behaviour. The other kids were there for fun. I was even more disheartened when they pulled me from the game to play boccia.

While I understand boccia is an incredible sport and tests mental agility and concentration, I wanted to return home…to play a good competitive game of football with my brothers where footballs would be hurled at me and where I can be my natural competitor.

No hopes

I gave up disability sports that day as I felt there was more a desire to make the person with a disability more disabled. They treated us like cattle in a field, as if we had no hopes or dreams of ever achieving something great.

I loved writing, and I soon realised I loved going to different teams for motivational talks. My dad and I every weekend would go to various games, Cork county, Kerry county, you name it my dad and I would go.

When I got this writing gig initially I figured I would have to come back to disability sports.

London 2012 was monumental in changing attitudes towards sports stars with disabilities, and I always wondered were attitudes changed within the sport itself. This led me to discover wheelchair hurling, and how in Ulster it is showcased at half-time during the Ulster football semi-finals. So I got in touch with Shane McCann, a representative from Ulster GAA and Active Clubs co-ordinator.

Highlights on Youtube show sliothars flying everywhere, being chased down by players on either team. They play energetically and enthusiastically

McCann started off in special schools where they held special schools and community games. From there parents and children with disabilities were introduced to sport early on. The idea behind it is to get kids active, and the environment created was to encourage parents and children to get involved.

McCann told me competition was high, and that able-bodied siblings tried wheelchair hurling and found it incredibly challenging, much to the amusement of their wheelchair-user sibling.

Teams were formed which would enable adults and children with a disability to represent their county. Go games are held in Croke Park annually, which were treated like an All-Ireland series, while this weekend the All-Ireland Championship will be held in IT Sligo.

Music to my ears

I felt bad asking was it going to be competitive, but McCann’s reply was music to my ears.

“Ah, yeah, our Ulster team are not happy with second place. Leinster are quite good and strong at it, but this year I overheard a few of our young fellas talking tactics on how they were going to beat Leinster.”

Finally, the notion of disability was eradicated and an enabling of people with disabilities to pursue their dreams...minus the pity.

This weekend, families of people with disabilities will be beaming with joy as their daughter/son/sister/brother will compete for the All-Ireland. The pride of representing their county, and the ability to say they have an All-Ireland medal in their pocket, is something many people, disabled or not, rarely get to say. Only the best are selected, and only the elite will win.

The games are fast paced and electrifying. Highlights on Youtube show sliothars flying everywhere, being chased down by players on either team. They play energetically and enthusiastically.

Idea was born

It was back in 1998, and Tim Maher, a Kerry man, realised there was an opening in the market. He saw how people in wheelchairs played wheelchair tennis and tried to adopt those methods into wheelchair hurling. He brought his idea to Dublin, and thus the idea was born.

The GAA has also shown how serious it is about the game. The GAA has an inclusion vision which helps with funding for wheelchairs, travel expenses and even hotel expenses. Other events it has held are to celebrate Down Syndrome. The GAA’s involvement is not something to be sneered at, it is something that should be warmly embraced.

After the winners are crowned, wheelchair hurling will have a showcase outside IT Sligo as part of a mini-road show. This is to highlight the game and encourage others to get involved. There is no age limit nor is there an ability limit. Everyone is welcome.

I was scarred by my experience of disability sports, but seeing the smiles underneath the competitive nature I know the future is safe

It adheres to the advice of the GAA which states on inclusion and diversity: “The words ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ tend to get bandied about a lot. To keep things simple, we should work to these definitions: Inclusion essentially means people having a sense of belonging, of being comfortable in being part of something they value. Diversity means being aware of, accommodating and celebrating difference.”

Sure, it has a long way to go, but it is evolving along with the world.

Sporting ethos

Almost 600,000 people in Ireland have a disability, either acquired or since birth. The idea of wheelchair hurling is to incorporate those people into an environment that is fun and provides both a mental and physical fitness.

While not everyone likes sport, the application of sporting ethos can be applied to everyday life: teamwork, commitment, leadership and the ability to learn from failures and success. That is no different in disability sports.

I was scarred by my experience of disability sports, but seeing the smiles underneath the competitive nature I know the future is safe.

While I wish this was there when I was a child I now realise the importance of highlighting these facilities and resources to other people around the country. McCann and I both agreed during our brief interview that these events and sports should be emphasised more.

As I always say, if I can get one child or adult to go into the world with a different attitude I would be content.

I hope after this All-Ireland series, and after reading this article, one family out there can give their child the opportunity to succeed and live their life – minus the pity.