Anything’s possible for disabled athletes

Jason Diederich. Photo by Jacob Lynch.
Almost two thirds of disabled Australians now take part in sport. Jacob Lynch reports on some of the people who help make this happen.

Jason Diederich turns to his dog Kip and flings his prosthetic leg over the seat to make himself comfortable.

The ex-swimmer has a broad and contagious smile when talking about winning silver in the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992. “It was a very exciting time of my life that I look back on very fondly.”

Diederich enjoyed that time so much he decided to give back. After the Paralympics, he became an occupational therapist.

Heroes like Diederich are scattered throughout Australia. They are often found behind the scenes in local football clubs, basketball courts and city offices.

This year, an 88-year-old wheelchair-confined woman will enter ocean water for the first time in her life at Mount Martha Beach. This is thanks to Libbi Cunnington, manager of Access for All Abilities’ (AAA) Play and Disability Program. “It’s my job to spread the word to the Victorian community about what is out there.” One of the fundamental aims of Cunnington and her colleagues is to get disabled people into sport.

Anything's possible for disabled athletes
Libbi Cunnington. Photo by Jacob Lynch.

Logan Whitaker, Inclusion (All Abilities) Manager for the AFL, says sport saves disabled people. He says disabled people usually don’t have the tools to say “no”, which creates great risk when someone with a disability is offered drugs.

Whitaker says football is incredibly important for disabled people. “There’s honestly people that without football in their lives, and this sounds extreme, but genuinely will be dead or in jail if they bump into the wrong crowd. They can be taken advantage of.”

Cunnington says there is a perception that if there is someone with a disability, they can’t do “stuff”. It’s sometimes up to Cunnington to convince those with a disability that they can do extraordinary things in the sporting sphere.

“There was a young guy from overseas, he was about eight or nine and was hearing impaired. He hadn’t had any treatment or anything like that, and now from coming to Australia, he had treatment, his family live here now and he plays in a hearing impaired AusKick,” says Cunnington.

Parents with disabled children love their children dearly and want them to be included. Cunnington knows the heartbreak this group of parents inevitably face when setbacks occur. Cunnington urges parents to be resilient. “You might try one or two sporting programs and it could be a complete disaster, but come back and we’ll give it another go.”

Whitaker always wanted to work in football, but he didn’t think he would ever be in the role he is in now. Whitaker’s childhood helped him understand disabled people. When he was a young boy his parents provided respite care on weekends to families in need. Respite care gives carers of disabled people a break from the challenges of looking after family members with a disorder. “My personal passion comes from my parents.”

Whitaker was exposed as a seven year-old to kids who were going through hardship. “I grew up every weekend essentially with kids with disabilities running around my house with me.”

Whitaker saw the lack of opportunities for these people and has since strived to make a difference. He embraced the weekends with the disabled kids. “It was just normal for me.”

“When you’re presenting in front of disability groups who are the most welcoming, non-judgmental people that you’ll ever meet, it’s just the best thing in the world,” says Cunnington.

As an occupational therapist Diederich worked with injured and disabled people and helped them either return to or start work. He stresses the significance of the first session as it “could be make or break” for the patient.

Cunnington says Welcome Officers are essential in the early stages of joining a sporting club and the first 10 minutes of joining or starting a process is pivotal. Welcome Officers show disabled athletes around and make them feel comfortable.  Walking into a new club for the first time is “absolutely nerve wracking”, says Cunnington.

Diederich says the way sporting clubs provide opportunities for the impaired is a whole lot better than what it was. When Diedrich started to compete, he had to approach the judge and let him know about his leg. The judge said to the amputee that it wasn’t a disabled sporting event.

Diederich was also disqualified in the butterfly event for not having his feet together despite only having one-and-a-half legs.

The past two decades in Australia have shown an interest in disabled people participating in sport. In 2012, the ABS showed 59 per cent of Australians who had a reported disability (both mental and physical) participated in sport.

Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR) CEO Richard Aamon says some disabled people may have never believed they could do extraordinary things. “We had one girl who couldn’t walk and talk, but she was able to communicate with us through her communication board that the skiing day was one of the best days of her life.“

Aamon says paralympian role models such as gold medalist tennis star, Dylan Alcott, give hope to disabled people.

Whitaker says society has become increasingly accepting of disabled people over time, however there is still a long way to go.

Whitaker says the hardest part of the job is making “tough personal decisions”. He says it’s easy to become emotionally attached to the participants. “There are some horrific stories out there of lack of inclusion, some of the things that some of the guys we have playing footy have been through in their lives is stuff that no-one should ever go through, let alone a mid-twenties person with a disability.

“It is really difficult to detach from that and keep professional Logan and personal Logan separate.

“A couple of years a go, there was a guy (disabled) that I knew was struggling with accommodation. He had some other support and there was a training session we had and I just knew he had nowhere to go after that.

“I did what I could, I called support networks to try and find him a place to stay at night, eventually we did but my other option was to say come and sleep on my couch, which I didn’t want to do.

“I had to keep that level of separation. I had to find other support networks. The easy thing to say is come with me mate, jump in my car, stay with me at my place and we’ll figure it out tomorrow, but the professional thing I had to do was to keep that separate.”

DSR put on a parent event after a skiing trip so the parents of disabled kids who attended the trip could see all the photos, and Aamon says there were parents in tears. “To see parents so proud of their kids … is just gold.”

Mark Pilditch runs soccer clinics in Williamstown on Saturday mornings for disabled kids. The All Abilities coach of Barnestoneworth United Junior Football Club says says the happiest part is seeing the smile on the faces of the kids and parents.