Annemarie is the magazines editor and regular columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Opinion: Paralympians deserve star treatment

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New Zealand's Sophie Pascoe with her gold medal after winning the Womens 200m Individual Medley SM10 Swimming at the Rio Paralympics. Photo/Photosport
New Zealand's Sophie Pascoe with her gold medal after winning the Womens 200m Individual Medley SM10 Swimming at the Rio Paralympics. Photo/Photosport

Our voices are still raw from cheering on Peter Burling, Eliza McCartney, Luuka Jones and all the New Zealand medallists at the Olympics.

We should be equally proud of our paralympians, as the New Zealand medal tally keeps edging upwards with sports pundits calling it the best performance by New Zealand in its 48 years of competition.

At the time of writing, New Zealand's total medal tally for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games is now nine gold, five silver and four bronze which leaves New Zealand sitting ninth overall on the medal count, and first on the per capita table.

Paralympian swimming star Sophie Pascoe has already won three golds and two silvers and smashed a world record. Pascoe has won 15 medals over three Paralympics, including eight golds.

Another stand-out is our very own blade runner, Liam Malone, who has won two golds and a silver.

Yet Pascoe and Malone aren't elevated to the status of a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt.

Even in their own country, they are not (yet anyway) allocated the star treatment of a Val Adams or Mahe Drysdale.

While the performance of our athletes and others was often the main first story on night-time news, the Paralympics is treated a bit like an also-ran, covered in the sports section.

Is this reflective of some inherent discrimination to disabled people in general? Perhaps similar to how women's sport is treated.

Think how most school kids can name current or former All Blacks. Now ask them to name any of the Black Ferns, the New Zealand women's rugby team. They may struggle to name even one.

Likewise until this year's Paralympics, many people might have struggled to name medal winners, whereas our Olympic winners roll off the tongue.

One could argue that the Paralympics or indeed women's sports is given less coverage because there is less of a following. That the Steamers for example are never going to attract the same interest as the All Blacks.

But areas of sport also gain a following by the amount of exposure they get.

The good news is that the performance of our athletes in this years Paralympics means they are gaining more attention in their own right.

Our society still has a way to go in the way it treats people with disabilities. In my opinion, much of this attitude starts at an early age, in how children are treated at schools.

It is a welcome move that the Government is scrapping the term "special needs" in education because of concerns it singles out students.

Last month Education Minister Hekia Parata released a Cabinet paper which proposed changing the language used to describe the system saying, "The use of the term 'special needs' singles people out, and by concentrating on learner's deficits, can marginalise individuals and create a barrier to a fully inclusive education system."

It is true that language is a powerful creator of reality and culture. It can positively influence an inclusive culture as well as negatively propagate discrimination.

Think of the term "wheelchair bound", compared with "wheelchair user", or "he suffers from ... afflicted with" rather than just the simple, "he has".

However an inclusive approach to education will require more than changes in semantics.
Currently about 80,000 to 100,000 children in early childhood education and schools get some form of learning support each year - about 10 per cent of the total student population.

The Ministry of Education has been struggling to meet growing demand as the school-age population grows.

Last year about $590m was spent on special education.

However in last month's Cabinet paper there was no change in overall funding proposed. Instead there will be an increased focus on early intervention which is commendable but not if this comes at the expense of school-aged children.

Last year a select committee inquiry into dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders in schools, heard from teachers, specialists and parents about the difficulty in accessing the "world-class inclusive education" promised in the Government's Special Education policy.

The inquiry heard that in an IHC survey, 70 per cent of parents reported difficulty in getting specialist support and 75 per cent found teachers lacked training, confidence, skills and/or knowledge needed to teach children with disabilities.

The IHC's Trish Grant told the inquiry, "Schools, medical professionals and specialists say that the time and financial resources to do right by our children just aren't there. In fact, some report incentives to turn away children and young people at the door.

"This isn't good enough. Children with disabilities aren't 'other' children. Like all our young people they are the individuals we need to support in order for them to grow into included, valued and contributing citizens."

This has a knock-on impact in the workforce.

A Statistics New Zealand disability survey recorded just 61 per cent of disabled people aged 15-64 had paid jobs and of these just a third were managerial or professional roles.

Disabled workers tended to have lower incomes with 38 per cent reporting yearly incomes of $38,000 or less. Yet 74 per cent of those unemployed would work if a job was available.

At a Bay of Plenty Disability summit last year Paul Curry, vice president of the Western Bay Disabled Persons Assembly, told the Bay of Plenty Times that people don't usually overtly discriminate against people with disabilities, saying it was usually fear of the unknown or lack of understanding that meant barriers were put up which excluded people with disabilities from employment opportunities.

A good education helps children fully participate in and contribute in the community.

Children of all needs deserve as much funding and resourcing as possible to be put into the pay and training of teachers and teacher aides, with small class sizes.

But it should be recognised that some children require more than others.

Until there is a fully inclusive system in which children with disabilities do not struggle to access the education they need, people with physical and learning disabilities are still discriminated against at school, in the workforce and in wider society.

Sport, whether you like it or not, has a strong influence in New Zealand culture and attitudes.

I hope the performance of our outstanding Paralympians helps shift some attitudes or, at the very least, their fantastic medal haul should shift them to a well-deserved place at the front of a news bulletin.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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