Are Downs Syndrome Athletes Shortchanged in Paralympic Movement?

LONDON, England, September 11. SHORTLY after the conclusion of an impressive 2012 London Paralympics, Swimming World received the following Letter to the Editor from an impassioned parent of a Downs Syndrome swimmer. Jackie Birchmore, while citing how incredible the Paralympics were in London, has genuine concerns regarding the S14 Intellectual Disability category and how swimmers with Downs Syndrome come into play.

“I have watched with interest the coverage, debate and comment on this year's Paralympics and, like you, have been so impressed by the standard of competition and the achievement through adversity. There is though a great deal of frustration which comes to the fore on occasion, particularly when emphasis is placed on “inclusion” and “level playing fields”.

I am sure you are aware of the continuing debate around S14, for swimmers with an intellectual disability as their principal disability. This of course effectively means an able bodied athlete has an obvious advantage. This conversely means that those athletes with Downs Syndrome are disadvantaged, something the IPC appear to have a problem accepting.

(Want some insight into the classification system at the Paralympics? Click here to read Jeff Commings' breakdown of the groupings.)

Although it is difficult to accept sometimes, our children do face physical challenges which, although they vary greatly from individual to individual, are always there. Downs Syndrome swimmers also have physical disabilities! I was therefore really disappointed, and yes ANGRY as well, when I noted that Phil Craven said that the IPC were considering splitting physical disabilities into more categories! Learning Disability would remain with a single catch all category.

I know that the frustration I feel is replicated by every other parent who has a son or daughter with Downs Syndrome and I cannot count the number of times friends and acquaintances have asked when my son will be in the Paralympics. Although I have watched as much coverage as I am able, and so has everyone I know, we cannot recollect seeing any competitor with Downs Syndrome. Surely the absence of any serious representation at these games from a disability group which is active in sport should empirically demonstrate that something is wrong with the classification process and should set some bells ringing.

Downs Syndrome is after all the largest single cause of Learning Disability. My son, Billy, who is 16, is representing Great Britain at the World Downs Syndrome championships in Italy this year, he is part of a 23-swimmer squad, all self-funded and largely ignored – who train regularly. My son is so committed to his swimming – he trains 6 times a week – twice weekly with his disability swimming club and 4 times a week with a mainstream swimming club – travels all over the country to participate in competitions, but he is never going to appear at a Paralympics.

So where are the role models, where is the public acceptance going to come from? After these Paralympics no one is going to look a dwarfism or an amputee in the same way, is this the same for Downs Syndrome? In Sydney, [intellectual disability classifications were] bought into disrepute by a Spanish basketball team pretending to be disabled, it has taken the intervening years and a lot of research to come up with testing which achieves credibility. However all this will be wasted if these are the last Paralympic Games that this classification is seen.

Between Sydney and London a whole generation of Downs Syndrome athletes were excluded from even aspiring to the Paralympics, when they could have been given the opportunity to establish a credible classification, after all a simple blood test is all it takes to confirm “diagnosis”.

Should Classification Group 14 vanishes once again, then so too does any opportunity whatsoever for Downs Syndrome competitors to compete on the global stage. These questions have not even been aired in public, and to try to do so is not intended to detract the brilliant performances we have seen, the fantastic job that the media has done or the quality of the organization of the Games themselves.

However if they are not raised now with public awareness at its height, when is the right time?

I know that many people have tried raising this through Facebook and Twitter but there is little sign of any attention being paid, perhaps this is something you are interested in pursuing in the absence of any other success. I have attempted to ensure that this letter is balanced and hope it raises reasonable points but I do know that there are parents who feel that Downs Syndrome is not “sexy” enough or “photogenic” enough and that maybe if the IPC holds out long enough the problem will “go away”.

I would prefer to think that it is a lack of understanding and that even in Disability Sport there is an educational job to do. We all need hope that all facets of disability will be properly represented in the future in order to continue to inspire future generations and perhaps you can help.

Yours in hope Jackie Birchmore”