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Disabled children game for success

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It takes more than skill and the ability to motivate when coaching athletes with disabilities. Nadia Badarudin meets two educators who have taken up the challenge

.ZAIM Abu Hirzan Zaidan, 17, sat alone at a bowling centre in Sri Petaling, so engrossed in a comic book that he did not even lift his head when I approached.

He was soft-spoken and careful with his words when answering my questions but most of the time, his answers were incomplete.

His face went blank at some questions and he instinctively went back to his comic book. Zaim is autistic.

However, his eyes were alert when I asked him about the bowling tournament he was training for.

The student from Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Alam Damai, Cheras, is a natural at bowling.

So it was no surprise when he made the country proud by bagging a silver and bronze at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece in 2011.

Children with special needs can be transformed from “unable to “able”, and from “isolated to “involved”. Sports provides them with an opportunity to shine. Teachers Mohd Shukry Hussain and Nagoor Meera Abdullah are dedicated to helping special athletes excel in their fields.

DISCOVERING TALENT
Mohd Shukry Hussain, or Cikgu Shukry, 46, started his career in 1991 in Kuala Lumpur as a teacher for children with special needs.

With a bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, he has successfully transformed, through sports, the lives of more than 100 children with Down’s Syndrome, autism, dyslexia, hyperactivity and other intellectual disabilities.

He teaches at SMK Alam Damai, one of the few government schools in the State offering an Integrated Special Education Programme for children with disabilities including the deaf and visually impaired.

“When Zaim was born, his parents were told he would never walk, talk, sit, be potty-trained or do anything normal children do.

“It was a challenge to teach Zaim but with the help of sports, he has grown mentally, socially and spiritually. Who would have thought that he could be an accomplished and confident athlete representing the country in Special Olympics?” said Shukry.

Zaim won silver in the single category, and bronze in the double category with Husni Mubarak Abdul Halim (also trained by Shukry).  

“When uncovering the talents of children with special needs, the key is simple — look into their strengths, not weaknesses,” said Shukry, who also trains Paralympians and is a certified national coach for football, tenpin bowling and athletics.

Paralympian Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli, another former student of Shukry, made it to the Paralympic Games last year and won a bronze medal in the men’s shot-put category (cognitive disability).

Shukry, a sportsman himself since his schooldays, finds pleasure in engaging those with special needs to socialise and learn through sports.     

“Sports is a good way to excite slow learners to learn and get involved in various activities. For example, I teach students to recognise alphabets and numbers while playing simple games outside the classroom,” said Shukry.

“If they cannot excel in studies, why not encourage them to take up sports instead? There is always a chance for them to go far.”  

WHAT IT TAKES
Shukry is among the few male teachers in the country who teaches children and teenagers with intellectual disabilities.

“I find it exciting as I face new challenges every  day. There was a student who brought a milk bottle and had to have his susu break in a corner of the classroom,” he recalls.

“Another one used to tear up her books. Some keep quiet while others turn aggressive when expressing their emotions.”

During international tournaments, he said, a teacher or a coach has to wear several hats.

Shukry explained: “Besides ensuring our charges can take care of themselves, we also have to calm them or boost their morale when they experience emotional breakdowns.”

It was not easy and he admitted there were times when he felt like giving up.   

“My job is not confined to the classroom. It is tiring, and sometimes it means less time with my family. But patience, commitment, knowledge and understanding are important,” said the father of three who gets his children to bowl with his students so that they can understand his job better.    

Success is more than about winning medals where special athletes are concerned.

“Teaching them independence is meaningful to me. Special people can show their strength in sports. Zaim’s parents said I have inspired him but, actually, he has inspired me, especially with his extraordinary determination. He has encouraged me to continue my work.”

BRINGING OUT THE BEST
Lecturer and Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam sports studies programme coordinator Nagoor Meera Abdullah has been teaching and coaching athletes of various disabilities for 15 years.

The 38-year-old believes those with special needs can develop improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence and a more positive self-image if they play sports.

Nagoor’s passion for training the disabled started in 1998 when he was tasked with coaching a group of wheelchair-bound athletes for the first Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur (2001).   

“It was challenging because I only had the basics to train normal people,” he said. “But I found it exciting especially after I saw their happy faces when they mastered a skill or technique.”

Trainers must understand the athletes’ disabilities (whether congenital or acquired) and the related conditions. Making necessary adjustments to the training programmes is key.

“As always, focus on their strengths, not weaknesses,” said Nagoor. “Educators should also master techniques to communicate with them.

“When training the disabled, physical demonstration is the most effective method. When training the blind, for instance, there are the hand-body manipulation and Braille techniques. As for the deaf, we write down instructions besides using sign language.”

Educators have to ensure that the training programme complies with the athletes’ health requirements.

“I had to make sure that one of my trainees, Faridul Masri (who  has spinal injury), could still go for dialysis while he was training for the World Wheelchair and Amputee Games in Taiwan in 2007.”

Faridul, a national elite Paralympian, won a medal at the competition and came in fourth in the men’s javelin (wheelchair category) at the 2012 London Paralympics.    

Nagoor said patience and passion keep him going.

“Unfortunately, most of us still have a negative perception of people with disabilities. The disabled can go beyond their limitations if only we, the normal ones, have the patience and passion to understand them better.”

BE BRAVE

FOUNDED by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, the Special Olympics is an international programme of year-round sports training and competition for more than two million children and adults with intellectual disabilities around the world.

The oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Goal: For people with intellectual disabilities to have the chance to become useful and productive citizens who are respected and accepted in their communities.

Benefits: Improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence, positive self-image, friendship and increased family support.  

Participants: To be eligible, the person must be at least 8 years old and identified by an agency or a professional as having one of the following conditions — intellectual disabilities, cognitive delays as measured by formal assessment, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delays that require or have required specially designed instruction.    

Source: The Power of Sports — 2013 Media Education Workshop by P&G and Special Olympics Malaysia

ABOUT INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES

THESE are characterised by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills.

An individual is considered to have an intellectual disability when:

• The intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75.
• The disability originated before     age 18.

Adaptive behaviour represents the conceptual, social and practical skills that people have learnt to be able to function in their everyday live such as:

• Communication
• Self-care
• Home-living
• Social skills
• Leisure
• Health and safety
• Self-direction
• Functional academics (reading, writing, basic Mathematics) and work.

Categories of intellectual disabilities:

• Slow learner
• Down’s Syndrome
• Mental retardation
• Hyperactive

Source: The Power of Sports — 2013 Media Education Workshop by P&G and Special Olympics Malaysia

 

Zaim is a natural in bowling

“The key is simple — look into their strengths, not weaknesses.” Mohd Shukry Hussain

“The disabled can go beyond their limitations if only we have the patience and passion to understand them better.” Nagoor Meera Abdullah

Nagoor (in white shirt) says when training the disabled, physical demonstration is the most effective method.


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