• Katie Thomas

What the first integrated Commonwealth Games means to people with a disability

What empowers you? The thrill of discovering new places, challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone, or maybe even that hit of caffeine in the morning to charge you through the day? For many people living with a disability, a huge source of empowerment is inclusivity.

On the last morning of the Commonwealth Games, Kurt Fearnley pumped his wheels over the finish-line for the final time, after 18 years of international competition.

Fearnley is no stranger to giving it his all. Born without a sacrum and with missing parts from his lower spine, Fearnley has immortalised himself as one of Australia’s greatest Paralympians through hard-work and determination.

To top off a fairytale finish to what was a memorable career of ‘pushing the limits,’ Fearnley was awarded the honour of carrying the flag for Australia into the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony last night. After the ceremony, people fired up because Kurt and the other athletes’ entrance to the stadium was not shown in the broadcast.

Earlier in the day Fearnley spoke to media about how massive this moment would be for people with a disability.

“It’s been an unbelievable week. As a kid I couldn’t have imagined seeing a guy in a wheelchair carrying the flag out to the closing ceremony at the Commonwealth Games,” he said.

It's disappointing that this moment was not shared with all of Australia, but let’s put that into perspective with what the 11 days of Commonwealth Games competition has achieved, inclusivity.

The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games has gone for gold in hosting the largest integrated para-sport program in the event’s history.

For the first time, para-sports were fully integrated into the Games, with medals won by Paralympians counting towards the overall medal tally. This has seen about 300 Para-athletes compete for 38 medal events across seven sports.

For people with a disability, these Games have been more than significant. They have been life changing.

Watching Paralympians compete for their country on prime-time television, alongside able-bodied athletes was an exciting moment. It showed people from all walks of life being recognised for their dedication and ability to achieve something that once seemed impossible.

"For people with a disability, these Games have been more than significant. They have been life changing."

It was moments like Lakeisha Patterson earning gold in the S9 100m freestyle in a world record time or T38 sprinter Evan O'Hanlon, not only impressing with his moustache, but winning Australia’s first gold medal on the track, or Madison de Rozario receiving a standing ovation for her gutsy effort in the women's T54 1500m final; that showed true ability and not just disability.

As a person with a physical disability myself, this display of inclusivity at an international sporting event was momentous. Growing up, I found people’s perception of disability, of what I could and couldn’t do, to be a barrier. However, these Games were a demonstration of perceptions changing and a focus on what someone can and will achieve.

"As a person with a physical disability myself, this display of inclusivity at an international sporting event was momentous."

After his 1500m silver medal win, Fearnley spoke to this inclusivity and his desire to see it translate into everyday life.

“The fans have been fantastic; they’ve embraced all the para events."

“We are getting people of all experiences of life and celebrating it… I think tomorrow maybe we can go back to work, and speak to your co-workers about getting more people with disabilities in there, or your education facilities, or into your public transport. This right here is a success, and let's remind ourselves of that and what our real purpose is."

With the 2018 Commonwealth Games finished, does this integrated approach lead to a lasting legacy of improvement for people with a disability? Who knows.

But for me, this year’s Games were a game-changer, and a positive one. As a sports lover and having grown up watching momentous events like Cathy Freeman taking gold, Ian Thorpe being the swimming wonder or Mo Farrar becoming the United Kingdom’s most successful runner – it’s something special to see someone like me competing in this inaugural event.

Fearnley told SEN 116 Radio on Monday afternoon that the ceremony omission had been disappointing.

"I am sure there are plenty of athletes and parents of athletes from all around the Commonwealth who would have loved to see their guys coming into the stadium."

The decision to leave the athletes out of the broadcast earned the ire of fans, politicians and even Channel Seven’s on-air hosts, sparking an early morning apology from Games boss Peter Beattie.

But Fearnley also emphasised the success of the Games, which he said had been "the best and most inclusive Games".

"For all the people blowing up, I know you’re doing it as a sign of kindness and respect for myself and the athletes, but I will blow up when it’s needed," he said.

“I will engage with everyone when there is a real solid circumstances to blow up. When people with wheelchairs get kicked off our airlines, when they are being kicked out of facilities for being fire hazards, when they’re not getting access to education, when they are issues with employment, I will fire up and I will grab everyone along with me."

Image source.

Katie Thomas has long been suspect for being the maker of crop-circles due to her professional wheelie skills. She is a major fan of vanilla milkshakes and enjoys gallivanting in the sun. She is loving this wonderful thing called ‘life’.

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