Jan Palazzi is the Executive Officer for International Bowls for the Disabled and originally wrote this piece for Bowls Australia. She has agreed to let us publish this on the blog in order to help the Canadian bowls community become more inclusive of bowlers with disabilities.

Credit: Bowls Scotland

Some people are born with a disability while others acquire it through an incident or accident.

Think about that for a moment.  One minute you’re driving to have a roll-up, off to a party with friends, holding down a terrific job, actively sporty, enjoying life to the fullest and generally doing all things taken for granted without a second thought. 

Then bam, in the blink of an eye it’s all taken away. 

Your whole world is turned upside down, you and the world you knew will never be the same again. 

Months (in some cases, years) of intense rehabilitation coupled with major mental and physical adjustments to new (for many, foreign) circumstances in their new normal.

One sentence fails to portray the enormity of their situational change – unable to walk properly or for some, not at all. 

Imagine not being able to “feel” your legs or not ever being able to walk again.

Having to come to terms of living life using a wheelchair and having to deal with the associated medical issues for the rest of your life? 

This is their new normal – forever. 

To this day even after many years of working with people with disabilities I can’t imagine it either.

Many of us have experienced an ailment/incident/accident e.g. broken arm, sprained ankle, bad knee or gout attack – all of which at the end of the day we know we will recover. 

Those having to deal with a new normal (one they didn’t sign up for) are not going to suddenly recover and walk back into the bowling club or out onto the green without major adjustments.

Major adjustments not only for themselves but for those around them also!!

Given different scenarios, if it were you or I who had suffered an ailment/incident/accident and recovered, on returning to the club we would most likely be greeted with “great to see you back, let’s go for a roll-up”. 

For those born or who become paraplegic/quadriplegic/disabled, the reaction can be very different.

Credit: Bowls Scotland

Many don’t know what to say or are unsure of how to react for fear of ‘offending’ or maybe saying the ‘wrong’ thing and in reality for many it’s easier to just to ignore and not become involved!!

It is more offensive to be ignored. 

Remember that person now in a wheelchair is the same person they were before their accident, it’s their circumstances that have changed and for some their legs have become the wheelchair they now sit in. 

From my observation and experience in having had numerous conversations, is that athletes with a disability would like nothing better than to be asked and included, they want to get on with their life and adapt to their new normality.

The majority of people I know  in wheelchairs are extremely confident and capable and ready for a new challenge, while on the other hand, some who have been in wheelchairs for whatever time (be it long or short term) are not as confident/capable. 

It can be said for any able bodied person wanting to learn to play bowls or learn a new skill, the lack of confidence and capability can be the same.  It’s no different if you’re disabled or able bodied.

As a Coach, how would it be if a “wheelie” came into your club and asked to be taught to play bowls? 

What would you do?  

There are many coaches who know exactly what to do.

On the other hand, some just wouldn’t know where to begin, not because they don’t want to, it could just be that they are unsure where to start, or struggle to interact with a person with a disability.

The beginning is always the best start.  For coaches who have never coached a person with a disability we have to remember, it’s also a learning curve for them and one which should be embraced.  Trust me at the end of a few sessions you will learn as much if not more from your athlete than they will learn from you.  It is a very rewarding and humbling experience.

I’ve experienced incidents when some people speak loud and or slow to a person in a wheelchair – they’re not deaf or intellectually impaired. (Mind you I witnessed some of the greatest/funniest comebacks from wheelies when that has happened to them.  One thing about wheelies is that they’ll say it the way it really is!!)

Credit: Bowls Scotland

In this article I am for the most part referring to someone confined to a wheelchair; there are many people who have disabilities that are not as obvious.  Some of these disabilities could be CP, Stroke Victims, Visually Impaired, Amputees, MS or ID’s and there are many more that I cannot even spell.

Each disability comes with its unique set of issues and challenges.  

First and foremost what is written is an insight of obstacles they have already faced way before you get to see some of them in a club environment and in no way meant to encourage anyone to sympathise with them because believe me I have it on very good authority sympathy is the last thing they want or expect, however empathy is a good starting point. 

They just want to fit in, be a part of, don’t want or expect to be treated differently and can be/are fiercely independent. 

Given what they have endured to get to the point of learning a new skill is nothing short of extraordinary. 

They have a desire to play/excel in sport just like you or I.

After working with people with disabilities for over twenty years I know I’m still learning and openly acknowledge that I’m in awe at how uncomplaining they are despite having, at times, used enough pain medication that could knock over a horse just to play a game of bowls.

Most able bodied people are not privy to this fact because disabled athletes will rarely talk about their pain, which for some can be constant.

They are amazing people and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them, knowing and understanding the challenges they have faced and conquered just to get on the green.

Some of my closest friends have a disability and just like my able bodied friends, they are funny, adaptable, have jobs, highly intelligent, love life and live it to the fullest.

A wheelie wants to come to your club and learn lawn bowls. So what do you do??? 

There are things that are not always obvious to us walkers, but necessary for those in wheelchairs.

  • Does your club provide disabled parking space/s?
  • Does your club provide wheelchair access to the club facilities for disabled persons?
  • Does your club provide wheelchair access onto the green and or safe access for persons with a disability? 
  • Are there obstacles in their way when travelling using a wheelchair? 

Whilst this may sound like a lot, it’s these small but extremely important things we walkers take for granted.   

I’ve experienced firsthand, able bodied people say, “They can walk why do they need a chair they’re just faking it” or “They can see they’re just saying they are visually impaired so they must be faking it”. 

Usually statements such as these are made after someone has lost a game to a wheelchair/visually impaired bowler.  In both cases it’s borne from ignorance. 

Believe me if disabled bowlers/athletes had a choice they’d be ecstatic to not be in a wheelchair and over the moon to be able to see the full length of a green!! 

If an able bodied person wears glasses for reading then takes them off to do other activities, does that then mean they are faking it, or that their glasses are not needed all of the time?  It is no different for those visually impaired athletes/bowlers.

People with disabilities just want to be treated equally, they do not want people to feel sorry for them and regard them as helpless, because believe me “helpless” is far from the truth.

All we have to do is be mindful of their circumstance and requirements, while we’re the same, we’re uniquely different.  Inclusiveness is the key    

There will be some people reading this who have friends or family who are disabled and will understand the contents of this article, however if this article touches someone who has a little bit of trepidation in approaching a person with a disability who comes into your club, I hope it helps you to break down some barriers. 

People with disabilities are still people, they have wishes and dreams like you and I, and just want to be included.

Sounds like I’m a little biased – yes, you bet I am.

Coaching athlete(s) with a disability has always been a privilege personally, and something you as a coach or club member can experience should you choose.

Athletes with disabilities have some of the most amazing/wonderful/sad/hilarious stories to share.

Remember us walkers have been lucky to have dodged a bullet?   It could be any one of us……

Nothing affects you until it affects you!

Until next time.

Jan Palazzi International Bowls for the Disabled, Executive Officer

1 Comment

Jean · August 16, 2020 at 6:31 pm

Well said!

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