Special Olympics is an organisation that works with people with intellectual disabilities, providing them with sporting opportunities at a grassroots level, to encourage confidence, expression and a sense of belonging and community.
President and Managing Director of Special Olympics Asia Pacific, Dipak Natali, joined Swingvy to share how technology has enabled them to continue supporting their athletes, and athletes' families over the last 18 months, and how the learnings from this period will continue to impact the way they enhance the lives of their athletes across the region in the future.
The words of Dipak Natali:
What is the mission of Special Olympics Asia Pacific?
Our work is really about giving someone who doesn't have an opportunity a chance. It’s about providing sports opportunities, and allowing people with intellectual disabilities to share that with the wider world. When they’re in a community and they’re getting a chance to play and have an opportunity to really show what they can do, we know that other people respond to that and that’s often a joyous thing for not only the person with intellectual disabilities, but their families and the people around them too.
People with intellectual disabilities are often excluded, and isolated, throughout their lives. When you’re thinking about a person with an intellectual disability walking into a traditional sports club, more often than not, they're going to be told that they can’t play. What Special Olympics has been set up for is really to say, “actually yeah why not. You can play, and we can give you every chance to fulfil your dreams on the sports field just like anybody else.”
That’s the thing about Special Olympics – it’s about an opportunity. It’s about giving people a chance to play. What we know is that anyone in that sort of environment can really get the opportunity to reach their full potential.
What’s really interesting about our work is that with people with intellectual disabilities when you look at any aspect of their lives they tend to be sort of forgotten or left out. Whether that be in healthcare, in education, skills development in the workplace and so forth. And so while it started more than 50 years ago on the sports field, our work moved way into the other areas where we knew that when you give someone a sporting chance, the rest of it will start to follow.
So we work in health, education, in skills development, and we look at ways we can make the rest of society know exactly what people with intellectual disabilities are capable of.
Which sports do Special Olympics Asia Pacific offer its athletes?
Our work is really about grassroots sport. It’s about providing that opportunity to play at local level. It’s year round in every sense of the word. What we are is an organisation who says to anyone who wants to take part in a sport that has an intellectual disability, here’s a chance for you to play. And it could be in a huge variety of different sports.
We offer everything from swimming right the way through to equestrian depending on where you are in the world. One of the beautiful things about what we do is that if there’s a sport that is interesting in your country and it’s something that we’re able to support and deliver, then you can get an opportunity to play that.
Over the past year with social distancing restrictions and lockdowns what has been your greatest challenge?
At Special Olympics Asia Pacific, we work across 35 countries, all the way from Afghanistan right the way through to Samoa. So you can imagine the spectrum that we deal with anyway as an organisation is vast. We’re working with communities everywhere.
Within that, when you look at something like the COVID-19 pandemic and you think about the impact it’s had everywhere it’s been so different. There are countries in the pacific where COVID-19 hasn’t really had an impact, and then we’ve seen unfortunate events in other places in the world where we’re seeing countries really having to restrict whatever they can do and that has had a huge impact on the Special Olympics community and the work that we do.
We’re seeing countries really having to restrict whatever they can do and that has had a huge impact on the Special Olympics community and the work that we do.
Much of our work even at a regional level would be about bringing people together so that they can be together in the same place and play sport. When we look at how we have to support our athletes on the ground, that’s had to be really revised. So much of our support to each country as a regional office has focused on being virtual. Still doing some of the things we were doing before around training and supporting each country to develop and grow, at least in terms of their skills, but all of that being virtual.
How has Special Olympics Asia Pacific adapted to these changes this past year?
All of our work is shifting more into this area of being more about ensuring connections, both between athletes and other athletes, athletes and their coaches, athletes with their parents, being able to connect with other parents and so forth. So trying to find the avenues to do that, that’s been our focus.
Now we’re focusing very much on engaging with them on a virtual basis. Making sure they’re staying healthy, staying fit, and above all, not feeling any more isolated than they already do.
How were the athletes you support affected during this period?
Before the pandemic, people with intellectual disabilities were left out, they were excluded. I think that what we’re seeing within the pandemic is that that’s even exacerbated that.
People with intellectual disabilities they’re used to being excluded, in fact that’s their normal. And so when we were experiencing so much social isolation last year, it was wonderful for us to be able to say, “hey think about how you’re feeling right now as anyone, that’s how people with intellectual disabilities feel most of the time.”
One of the things that happened very early on in the pandemic, is our regional input council – a group of young people that we work with, with and without intellectual disabilities coming from all across the region – they caught up with each other online and they said “hey, we need to something to keep us all motivated, and they came up with a lovely origami campaign called 1000 cranes for inclusion.
If you fold 1000 cranes, the legend is that your wish can be granted. And these young people all wanted to wish for everyone to be safe and to be healthy during the pandemic, and for inclusion to be something that we all foster throughout.
How has technology adoption helped you support people with intellectual disabilities?
We’ve learnt so much over the past year, year and a half now almost isn’t it. And it’s been absolutely wonderful to see how not only we’ve been able to adopt technology, but certainly how quickly we’ve seen that change on the ground with the countries that we work with.
Fact of the matter is, that technology doesn’t allow us to reach every person with intellectual disabilities. Far from it. In fact we know that there are challenges around that. But at least the connections that we have been able to establish and they way in which technology has allowed us to address a lot of those primary challenges of just simply connecting and making sure that people don’t feel that they’ve been left out, that’s part of us now. There’s not a chance that we’d be going back to the way that things were.
Technology has allowed us to address a lot of those primary challenges of just simply connecting.
Something that we would do in a pre-pandemic era, would be to run something called family health forums. That’s where parents can gather together and they can find out about issues and talk about things that they otherwise might not do with each other.
During the pandemic a lot of that shifted, it didn’t stop which is really really nice, it just shifted into a virtual environment. That is really a way for us to make sure that as a community, whether it be the athletes themselves or the parents or their brothers and sisters, there’s a real sense of still being involved, and still being part of what we are as a movement. And we know how important that is right now.
How has technology helped to build awareness of Special Olympics Asia Pacific?
Our online and digital work is much more robust now. We’re really making use of digital technologies and advocacy platforms.
For us in the region one of the difficult things has always been people needing to understand what Special Olympics actually is and what we do. A lot of people confuse us with the paralympics, they think that we’re about high-performance a-league level sport, and in actual fact we’re completely down the other end of the spectrum. Really focusing on opportunity at grassroots level.
We do those events that are high profile as well, but the confusion that exists about what it is that we do to impact a person with intellectual disabilities is quite tough to get people to understand as soon as you mention the name. So technology has really been a way for us to take ownership of what we are and what we stand for.
When you’re using social media and you're able to promote the impact you have on individuals, for us that’s probably the best way to explain what Special Olympics is. When we hear about an athlete who spent most of their younger childhood being left out or bullied or singled out for being different, not allowed to play sport – you give them a chance to play sport which leads to other opportunities to expand and grow as an individual. That’s the impact that Special Olympics has.
It’s such a privilege to hear stories of determination, of overcoming odds that the rest of us really really would struggle with. And for them it’s just, well “hey that’s just what the cards have dealt me”. I think that that really is powerful. Being able to tell these stories has been something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I got involved in Special Olympics.
Why did you choose Swingvy as your HR management tool?
We have a core team of staff in Singapore, and then we have a number of staff that are based in different countries. Just so we can offer the most widespread support both culturally and geographically. Having a way for us to connect all of those people and make sure that their needs are all looked after as part of Special Olympics wider HR, it makes sense to be able to use something like Swingvy to bring them together. So Swingvy has been a great way for us to connect the dots across the region.
How does your team make use of the Swingvy platform?
Something that we’d struggled with for some time was leave. We were trying to monitor so many people in different countries. Lots of, I say paper, but really emails back and forth trying to keep track of where everyone was. So the decision to go with Swingvy was really based on us trying to streamline that whole process. I think there have been a lot of advantages, certainly in us taking technology that much further through Swingvy to manage our leave records.
When we were using outlook and email really to keep these things on track it felt like it was really clogged up. It’s really nice actually having everything on the Swingvy app. The app is something that I’ve been using to track everything on a regular basis and to understand when people are in. We’ve found it really really easy to use. I feel that we have great awareness across the team now, of everyone’s movements and I think that’s really really important.
The best thing about Swingvy is that it streamlined so many of the processes that have felt like we’ve been swimming through treacle. I felt like we were always trudging along, finding it so difficult to manage these types of things that should be quite straightforward. It’s just allowed us to think more about our work rather than anything else which is exactly what you want. You don’t want to be stuck in processes.
For an organisation like us, it’s about having an impact on a person with intellectual disabilities. You want to give everything to that. And so knowing that the processes are being managed securely, well, and professionally, it’s really important, and I think Swingvy is allowing us to do that.
Watch the interview:
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