Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Home and away: children with disabilities go to a Man Utd match

This article was first published in the Bangkok Post on 23 July 2013.

Pichit and other children respond to a near miss by Man Utd
© UNICEF Thailand/2013/Jingjai N.
Among the 60,000 football fans packing out Rajamangala National Stadium for a Manchester United football match last weekend were 36 children with intellectual disabilities. The atmosphere was buzzing. Many fans arrived in the club’s trademark shirts, waving balloons, scarves and banners.  The children, who were invited to the game by the Manchester United Foundation and UNICEF, had only seen the football stars on TV, and were among the most enthusiastic in the audience.

“It’s fun to be here,” Pichit Panachai, 17, said at half time. “This is my first time to be really here. It’s more exciting than watching on TV. I want to see number 18 [Ashley Young] score!”

Pichit studies at Suphanburi Panyanukul School, a boarding school in Suphanburi Province attended by some 400 children with intellectual disabilities. The school concentrates on teaching children how to look after themselves, interact with others, and learn vocational skills. It is also involved in the sports training and competitions organized by Special Olympics Thailand, a non-government organization supported by UNICEF, which is working with 16,000 children with intellectual disabilities in Thailand.

Sataporn Visamart, Director of Suphanburi Panyanukul School, said that sports give the children an opportunity to be part of something. “It helps them develop physically and mentally, and to learn rules,” he said. “It’s good for their motivation and commitment. Other children see them competing and want to join in too.”

In Thailand, an estimated 1 million people have intellectual disabilities, about 600,000 of whom are children, according to Department of Mental Health.

Bijaya Rajbhandari, the Representative for UNICEF Thailand said that watching a football match with world-class players can be a great inspiration for children with intellectual disabilities. He added that these children are among the most vulnerable and excluded groups in society and that greater efforts should to be made to ensure that their rights to care and development are met.

“Support for children with disabilities should include opportunities to participate in sports and physical activities, which have been shown to have a positive impact on their physical and emotional development, as well as helping to improve their communication and social skills,” Rajbhandari said.

Training day
Children join the sports training at Suphan Buri Panyanukul School
© UNICEF Thailand/2013/Jingjai N.
The day before the match, the children trained at Suphan Buri Panyanukul School by running around the school field and practicing football moves, weaving in and out of markers on the ground. Some of the older children helped out, leading stretching exercises. “We do training in different sports, including running and football,” Chaianuchit explained. “The children can decide which they want to do. We do different activities so they don’t get bored.”

Pichit, who has a low IQ and a short attention span, is one of the school’s most successful athletes. He is on the football team and has taken part in Special Olympics national and international competitions. “I’ve always liked football since I was young,” he said. “I play in the front [as a striker]. It’s the same position as Wayne Rooney.”

In 2007, Pichit went to Beijing for the Special Olympics World Summer Game where Thailand beat Brunei 5-2. Pichit scored three of the goals.

Pitchit’s football coach Chaianuchit Rakkanjananonsaid that his involvement in sports has helped him to develop physically and mentally. “In the past, Pitchit used to play football alone and didn’t go to class,” Chaianuchit said. “Now he’s much more motivated and organised. He even helps look after the younger children.”

Chaianuchit said working with children with intellectual disabilities is very rewarding. “I used to think of it as just a job but I’ve come to really love the children,” he said. “It gives me a lot of happiness to see them smile. I remember one match when they were losing 16-0. Then they scored a goal and they came running to hug me as if they’d won the match. You can’t buy smiles like that.”

International inspiration

Thanawat cheers on Man Utd, holding his club scarf
© UNICEF Thailand/2013/Jingjai N. 
Back at the Rajmangala National Stadium, Pichit and his schoolmates chanted “Man U, Man U”. Sixteen-year-old Thanawat Ponoi held up a red and white club scarf with the boy next to him. Thanawat has also been a school athlete for two years and Pichit was his inspiration to take part in sports.

“I bought this Man-U scarf myself,” said Thanawat. “I’m ready to cheer Manchester United. My favourite player is Wayne Rooney because he scores a lot of goals.” But in the second half, the strain was starting to show as Teeratep Winothai scored a goal for the Thai team. “I’m not happy about the Thailand goal,” Thanawat said. “I’m getting a headache waiting for Man Utd to score!”

Chaianuchit said that Thanawat’s parents are very supportive of him, and have encouraged him to play sport. “When he first got interested in running his father went out and bought him a pair of running shoes,” he said. “Thanawat used to be very lazy and not good at school, but he’s improved a lot. He can still be impulsive though. Sometimes he eats in the middle of the night. I tell him this is not good if he wants to be an athlete. He needs to control himself.”

This year, UNICEF Thailand is providing 3.8 million Thai baht in funding to the Thai Special Olympics for sports training and competitions for around 16,000 children, including Pichit and Thanawat. The partnership between UNICEF and Manchester United began in 1999, with the aim of harnessing the power of football to improve the lives of children around the world. In 2005, the club provided funding for a new gymnasium at Baan Kredtrakarn, a temporary shelter near Bangkok that protects hundreds of women and girls who have been victims of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

The football match finally came to an end with the Thai football stars beating Manchester United 1-0.  The children from Suphanburi Panyanukul School were dejected by Manchester United’s loss but still thrilled to have watched the game live. “It was disappointing because I wanted Man U to score,” Pichit said as golden confetti exploded in the air. “But it was an exciting match and both teams were good. I want to keep on watching!”

Thailand and Mun Utd players fight for possession of the ball
© UNICEF Thailand/2013/Jingjai N. 
The author
Andy Brown is Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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