This week we hosted loads of Special Olympics athletes in our offices at Microsoft Ireland. They are a mix of men and women of all ages, who take part in the games in various sports like table tennis, golf, dancing, football and basketball. I was touched by the challenges these people face and how they and their families have overcome them, to bring joy and happiness to their lives.
It can’t be easy, having a child with a physical or mental disability which makes it harder for them to integrate into society. Whether that’s making friends, going to school, academic learning, motor skills, communication skills, developing confidence, getting a chance to express your personality, feeling loved and appreciated. These things we take for granted, but they are harder to achieve for some more than others.
These people inspired me to try new things – I played table tennis for the first time in years. I danced around with a hula hoop twirled some ribbons in the air. No egos, no rules, nobody telling you what to do. People mingling and having fun. One man I met looked the age of a teenager but was in fact 35. He shied away from the dance floor but was happy playing table tennis or football.
Over lunch, I got talking to his dad, who explained he was their table tennis coach. They organise training every week and events like discos every few months. This man was so generous with his time, and it sparked a conversation about how he got into the sport. It was so nice to see a man in his 70s pass on the love he had for a game to his son, and to the many other people who took part in Special Olympics.
He told me a fascinating story of how he took up table tennis. I suggested through school but he said, oh no, they didn’t have table tennis. When he was 11, he went to the National Stadium to watch an international game Ireland vs England. He was impressed, so asked his dad could he play. His dad made some excuse but only years later did he tell his son that the reason was they couldn’t afford to buy a table tennis bat and ball.
So they got creative and he adapted the butter pats that his mother used to make butter. They are wooden spatulas with a grooved side and a flat side. So perfect for table tennis, played on the kitchen table. The expensive part was the ball. That little white globe cost 2s 6d, which he said was a lot considering the weekly wage was £3. Now I’m old enough to remember decimalised punts, but not fluent in the monetary language of shillings and pence. After some quick research online, I concluded that was a lot of our wages for a little plastic ball.
Anyway, 60 years later that man still loves table tennis and his son is enjoying it just as much.