Parent cries discrimination
Special Olympian denied spot on provincial team over supervision needs
Diane Dawson says her 20-yearold son Shawn is unaware of the opportunity he will miss out on when Team Newfoundland and Labrador travels to St. Albert, Alta., for the 2012 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in March 2012.
Shawn, who is autistic, won three gold medals at the 2011 Special Olympics Newfoundland and Labrador Winter Games last month, results good enough to qualify for the provincial squad. But because Shawn requires nearconstant supervision, he has been denied a spot on the team.
“ It’s discriminating against the kids that need extra help,” says Diane.
According to Nelson White, executive director for Newfoundland and Labrador Special Olympics, it all boils down to national rules on athlete selection. Along with point scores based on provincial games results, the organization must take into account the club endorsement. That endorsement hinges on athletes being able to take care of their own basic needs.
“ Shawn has difficulty doing that,” says White. “ We took Shawn with us last year to London (Ont.) as part of the national games, and he struggled, to be quite frank. We had a coach who was almost dedicated to Shawn.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador contingent in London was a small one, with only three athletes and two coaches involved. At next year’s winter games, nine athletes will travel with three coaches.
“ We can’t provide one-on-one care. We know that, and Shawn’s family knows that.”
Special Olympics Canada establishes a quota for the number of participants who may travel from Newfoundland and Labrador to the games in Alberta.
“ If we choose to take one coach just to look after Shawn, we lose that quota,” says White. “ We’d have to give up another coach or athlete.”
He says Special Olympics Canada’s belief is that allowing personal care workers to attend national events would cause the size of teams to balloon and place a strain on accommodations.
Diane insists she would not want to prevent another athlete or coach from attending the Alberta event.
“I wouldn’t want an athlete turned away. That’s not what I’m fighting for,” she says.
Along with the competition in London, Shawn took part in a national event as a swimmer in Charlottetown, P. E. I, in 2009.
Diane first learned of the decision to leave Shawn off the team at a Tri-Con Special Olympics meeting held March 17 in Tilton. Executive member Rick Oliver informed her of the decision.
“ I knew there was rules that they had to be able to take care of themselves, but Shawn went before,” she says.
Tri-Con Special Olympics teammate Crystal Young, who won a pair of gold and a silver medal at the Corner Brook event, did make the provincial team.
Shawn’s mom admits he cannot manage independently at any competition, as is the case in many other aspects of his life. She would never send Shawn to a competition without someone to look after him.
“ He just needs guidance. He needs somebody to say, ‘ Okay Shawn, it’s time to put your pyjamas on, it’s time to go to bed, it’s time to get something to eat.’”
She says the rule unfairly punishes her son, as well as others across Canada possessing athletic abilities that are unable to handle independence.
“I want to get those rules changed ... I’d like to see that all the children would be able to get the opportunity to go if they’re at the level to be able to go to nationals.”
Shawn has difficulty socializing, and Diane says his neardecade-long involvement with the Tri-Con team has been great in that regard.
“ But we trained him hard so he could go to Alberta. What an opportunity for him, to go to Alberta and be able to compete.”
White says this decision does not close the door on Shawn’s future participation in national competitions.
“ In this particular situation, it wasn’t going to work. No one ever said Shawn will never be able to go to another national games. Given another set of circumstances, he may be.”
The provincial organization is well aware of the positive effect Special Olympics has had on Shawn, adds White.
“ We welcome Shawn back to our programs, and hopefully Shawn will continue to compete with Special Olympics. We know how far he’s come in the years he’s been with Special Olympics, as far as his development has been.”
To advocate for future rules changes, Diane has contacted the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, Port de Grave Liberal MHA Roland Butler, and Liberal MP Scott Andrews ( Avalon).
Shawn Dawson (left) will not get to go to the 2012 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games because he cannot take care of himself without constant supervision. Special Olympics Canada does not allow athletes to have personal care attendants at national events. His mother Diane says the rule unfairly discriminates against her son.