It was a game of basketball with a difference. Replacing the squeal of sneakers on the court came the sound of clashing wheelchairs. With the cheers of about 30 teenagers from the sideline, the game was on in earnest. And as the students from Victoria University Secondary College in St Albans were finding out, this match wasn't so much about winning or losing, but more about the challenges of life using a wheelchair. The game was part of the Wheeltalk School Awareness Program.
The Wheeltalk School Awareness Program
The Wheeltalk School Awareness Program is an educational exercise run by Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR). The aim of the event is to raise awareness of disability and promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The overall design of the program encourages people to think about diversity, disability and acceptance.
The Wheeltalk package is offered to community groups as well as primary and secondary schools. Each year the program reaches some 25,000 people. Sessions run for about 1.5 hours and include a verbal presentation by a DSR ambassador with a disability. This is followed by a series of wheelchair activities including basketball.
In his address to the students Gary Connor, hand-cycling champion and DSR ambassador, talks about his workplace accident. And how at the age of 22 he fell and broke his back, leaving him with paraplegia.
He tells the students, "When I was your age, I never expected to end up in a wheelchair. But I did and I've had to make the most of it".
There is stunned silence as Gary describes the determination and mental strength it takes to rebuild your life after such an accident. He goes on to describe how that same determination and strength helps overcome many challenges; not only for the simple things in life we all take for granted, but sporting achievements as well.
Opening minds to disabilities
There are lots of questions. The students are mostly interested in Gary's initial barriers, his coping skills, marriage and family situation. Gary's talk installs a lot of interest and thinking by the students.
One of the students Nipa reflects on Gary's talk. "I've never thought much about disabilities before this. But this has opened my mind. Not just about how people with disabilities cope, but to everyday possibilities."
Talking about the barriers, another student Simote says, "Gary is able to demonstrate what most people don't see. And rather than complain about his disability, he just gets on with making the most of what he has".
Sharing an understanding
Seventeen year old Jasmine initiated Wheeltalk's school visit at St Albans. Recent work experience gave her insight to the challenges of those with disabilities. She wanted to share this understanding with others. Jasmine says it was her best project ever.
And about her experience on the court she says, "You've got no idea how hard it is in those wheelchairs trying to play basketball. Gary makes it look so easy".
But Gary says years of practise can make anything look easy. His overall message is that living with a disability is far from easy.
He again emphasises, "it's constant hard work that takes lots of determination and mental strength to achieve what most people take for granted".
Gary goes on to encourage students to live life to the fullest. However, his motivation comes with a message to take care and be responsible.
The Wheeltalk Disability Program certainly makes people more aware. It also emphasises the dangers of risky behaviour and what can happen when things go wrong. And while showing the advantages of determination and mental strength, it also opens minds to differences, challenges and integration.