On a Friday night five years ago, Sam Thorne was running around at a school disco with his mates.
By the following Monday, the nine-year-old was paralysed and on a life support.
That was in 2015, when the seemingly healthy and active young boy was struck down by a rare condition called Transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that interrupts the message the spinal cord’s nerves send throughout the body.
Sam has had to overcome a lot in the last five years, but it has opened this eyes to issues faced by people with disabilities.
“Since I’ve become quadriplegic I’ve started to realise there is not a lot of accessibility and inclusivity,” said the now-14-year-old.
“For example, at my school whenever my mates would go and do interschool sports I would just go and sit in a classroom and do work.
“If there was a sport that was introduced that everybody could play, I think that would be extremely beneficial to possibly thousands of people.”
So do the Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association, who have just received a grant from the NDIS to work with schools across Queensland to introduce students to Paralympic sports with the aim of having them integrated into the curriculum.
“Participation in organised sport in school is enormously important for kids,” Sporting Wheelies CEO Amanda Mather said.
“Not just for the physical benefits, but for the social and mental health benefits.
“There are currently no Paralympic sports offered in Queensland schools, which means our children are missing out on opportunities to learn for about Paralympic sports.”
Ms Mather said about one in five children in Queensland schools have a disability with no opportunities to participate in sports designed for them.
“The other thing is it gives kids without disability is a more wholistic understanding of the challenges of that people with disability face,” she said.
Additionally, it is hoped the program will increase awareness about Paralympic sports.
“So when they actually see the Paralympics on TV they can go ‘I’ve had a go at that game and I know all about that game’,” Ms Mather said.
Sharing their stories with schools
The program will introduce students to a range of sports, from wheelchair basketball to boccia.
Sam plays Boccia, which is like bocce or lawn bowls.
According to Paralympics Australia, competitors in wheelchairs throw, kick, or use a ramp device to propel leather balls as close as possible to a white ball called the jack.
Another sport the program plans to introduce is goalball, a Paralympic sport that Ms Mather described as “a bit like the reverse of dodgeball”.
Goalball is played by people with vision impairment.
The players’ eyes are covered and they have to lay across the court to spot the ball getting in the goals.
The ball has a bell in it and players must use their other senses to block it.
The $1.1 million grant will enable Sporting Wheelies to pay for athletes with disabilities to come to schools and share their story and help introduce the students to different sports.
Wheelchair basketball player Ella Sabljak is set to be one of them.
This year, the primary school teacher was supposed to be competing at the Tokyo Paralympics.
“We’re trying to give schools and students a wide variety of different sports so that they are introduced to a whole range of disabilities — a whole different range of needs, a whole different variety of equipment,” Ms Sabljak said.
“Schools are moving from more of an integration model to more of an inclusive model.
Programs that build empathy
Exclusion is something people with disability experience in a number of settings and it can present challenges to schools.
“There was a student that I was teaching the other day and she had cerebral palsy, and the other kids in the class didn’t want to include her,” Ms Sabljak said.
“[They said] ‘we don’t want to run races with you because you’re not going to win’.”
She said the program will help in allowing kids to build empathy.
“At the end of the day, we only know what we know,” Ms Sabljak said.
“If we can educate and build awareness around disability … and having a look at it from someone else’s perspective, I think that is so much more powerful than any kind of classroom teachings.
“I try and bring it into my classroom every day.”
Minister for Disability Craig Crawford said since 2015, the Palaszczuk Government has provided $1.2 million to the Sporting Wheelies to provide sport and reaction activities for Queenslanders with disability.
“The Department of Education is also committed to providing a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment in all school activities to provide opportunities for all students to reach their full potential.
“In addition to school-based sporting activities, students with disability have the opportunity to participate in the Queensland School Sport program at regional, state, and national levels.”
The ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.