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Opinion: Is segregation a dirty word? What we must learn from disability sporting events

3 min read

This November Brisbane will host the inaugural Virtus Oceania Asia Games 2022, a sporting event specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. This will no doubt be an inspiring event, and especially heartwarming to see these athletes get their moment to compete in front of adoring crowds, wear the famed green and gold to represent their country and maybe win a medal. It is life changing for those involved and as a carer of a family member with a disability myself, I truly hope it’s also life changing for everyone watching.

From the Sydney 2000 Paralympics cheating scandal that saw the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) remove intellectual disability events from the Games for Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, to the reintroduction at the London 2012 Games; sporting opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities have come a long way, but the notion of adequate inclusion is far from achieved.

If you don’t know about the cheating scandal in 2000, I highly encourage you to read the story and think about what it says about the hard-core inclusion push and self-segregation.

As I watched the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, with its measly three events that people with intellectual disabilities were allowed to compete in, it was blatantly apparent that those with far-less covered disabilities were not given the same opportunities as others. They will say this is because they “can’t fit everybody in”. For me, this is yet another example of the intellectually impaired community getting less attention (despite their greater numbers) than their physical or sensory impaired cousins in the disability community who we hear so much from and see so often.

It is clear this dedicated event, Virtus Oceania Asia Games 2022, will be a life-changing opportunity to give people with an intellectual disability the spotlight they deserve.

As the operator of a supported employment service, which employs 150 people with intellectual disabilities, I am often faced with backlash from advocates over its ‘seclusive’ nature. The term ‘segregation’ is always referred to as a dirty word, as though it intends to lock people with intellectual disabilities away from the broader world. Even more personally, as a father of a daughter with an intellectual disability, I have been met with the same criticism over my choice to send her to a special school.

Related: Job skills program blooms for people with disabilities

I challenge you to consider; is there space for segregation to be positive?

In the case of the Virtus Games, it is giving people with intellectual disabilities the full spotlight where before there was ‘not enough room’. In the case of supported employment, it is giving 16,000 people, living mainly with intellectual disabilities across Australia, the choice of employment where they might otherwise not be able to work in an open employment setting. For my daughter, it gave her the chance to have a wrap-around education with the finest trained staff and like-minded peers.

This is self-segregation where people choose to be with others like them. It might be to compete in sports, like the deaf or blind Australian cricket team or the Virtus or Paralympic Games. Or it might be to attend a Special School or go to work in supported employment. We all have this fundamental right to decide who we want to be with and often we choose to be with people Like us.

People without an intellectual disability get to make these self-segregation choices all the time in their lives and no one ever challenges them. Just imagine for a minute how it would feel for every choice you make to self-segregate in your life to be challenged by someone you didn’t know on the grounds that it wasn’t an “informed choice” because inclusion is the path to a better life.

Beware those words “informed choice”.

I make poorly informed choices every day and some of those choices are to spend possibly too much time with people like me. But that’s my human right. If anyone tries to suggest to me that this is not an informed choice and it would be better to spend time with different people then I might tell them not very nicely what to do with that opinion.

Importantly, this isn’t just an academic issue. The hard-core inclusionists are campaigning for the Australian Government to end specialised settings like Special Education and Supported Employment so these choices no longer even exist. And they are even pressuring events like the Special Olympics to change their model under claims that segregation is bad.

I find this inclusionist campaign to remove choices discriminatory against the ID population and also disturbingly colonial.

I am proud that this sporting event will be the gold standard of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities to compete across a wide range of events. After all, sport is for everyone; employment is for everyone; education is for everyone.

Related: Children in northern New South Wales try wheelchair ball sports

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Phil Hayes-Brown was appointed Wallara CEO in 2010 after a 20 year career spanning investment banking, commercial law and sports marketing. His career included 12 years with the National Basketball Association where he finished as MD NBA Asia in Hong Kong, and a year as a GM with the Hawthorn Football Club leading all the Club’s commercial operations.

The leap to the disability sector was primarily driven by being a carer of a family member with an intellectual disability, which caused him to reflect on what really mattered, and a growing desire to serve a social purpose. While he loved working with elite athletes and brands in major sports, it was time to take on a role which made a difference.

At the time of his appointment as Wallara’s CEO, Phil recalls knowing little about the disability sector, and whilst the learning curve was steep, he was determined to bring a fresh commercial perspective to the organisation.


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