Making the invisible visible

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of sport and how it shapes the lives of so many Aussies.

In 10 days you can see how much sport has positively impacted the athletes participating in Australia’s Special Olympics National Games for 2022 held in Launceston. From 17-21 October, almost 750 athletes with intellectual disabilities will compete for gold, silver or bronze hardware.

The Games includes Olympic-style individual and team sports that provide meaningful competition opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. For five days, athletes will compete across nine sports: athletics, basketball, bocce, bowling, soccer, golf, gymnastics, swimming and tennis.

Some of those athletes will also get to represent Australia, donning green and gold on the world stage at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin next year. How good.

I had the honour of helping to farewell and wish Team Victoria the best of luck before they leave the mainland to go to Tassie. Together with Special Olympian Daniel, we lit the cauldron — a symbol of the Olympics — on the hallowed grounds of the MCG.

I’ve been coming to Special Olympics events now for about 15 years, and every time I come, I learn a bit more about a whole lot of things. One of the things that I’ve always seen from Special Olympics events is they’re actually moments of real joy and happiness, and that’s what I think the Special Olympics is all about.

I think of how Special Olympians who did their first event in 1977 around Kew Cottages in Melbourne felt. I think our attitudes towards disability now have vastly improved since that time, but I was looking at photos of past events then and I couldn’t help but smile.

I felt that way again when I was sitting with the Team Victoria athletes, and to my left, were their families, friends, carers and supporters. There were lots of “woohoos”, enthusiastic clapping and happy tears.

Athletes were egging each other on, I saw many congratulatory pats on the back as athletes got their Special Olympics pins and it was hard not to see the commitment, passion and pride from Special Olympics staff.

It really was a joyous occasion but I also hope the Games can go beyond that.

I mean, I love sport. These athletes make friends, they learn skills and how to be in a team. They also develop confidence, independence and improve their fitness, health and wellbeing. That’s all great but for me when I see them, I actually see a lot of other Australians, people with disability and their families and carers and people who work with them.

As Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, I’m always going to fight for a better deal for people with disabilities.

In this case, the Games show the ability of Special Olympians and it turns the invisible visible. Look beyond the disability, and just enjoy watching a fellow Aussie achieving their dream and having fun while doing it. See their whole person and not just their disability.

The energy I was feeling at the MCG for Team Victoria, I can only imagine how amplified that will be in Launceston. Tassie, you lucky thing, the athletes, volunteers, supporters and spectators that will descend to attend five fantastic days of sport will make your state the happiest place to be.

What I want to do is harness that positivity, take some of the spirit of that week in Launceston and try and make it every day of the year for people with disability.

These athletes are living their dreams, but for the 4.5 million other people with disability, they’re making them visible and getting people who don’t know about disability to reimagine what they don’t know.

One day I hope the Special Olympics National Games gets the level of attention like our other sporting events, but until that happy day, you can watch some of the sports live on their social media and website.

I’ll sign off this week with the athletes’ pledge of the Special Olympics, and I wish all athletes the best of luck in their games (special mention to Team Victoria).

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Bill Shorten is a Special Olympics fan, the Minister for the NDIS, Minister for Government Services and Federal Member for Maribyrnong.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Thursday 6 October 2022.