Bringing Special Athletes to the Next Level

As both an athlete and the outgoing Chairperson of the Athlete Leadership Team (ALT) at Special Olympics Great Britain, Ian is incredibly passionate about improving access to sport in individuals with learning disabilities and autism.

Ian has competed extensively in athletic events, winning several medals in the Special Olympic games throughout his career. He hopes to inspire others to find their own confidence through sports, using his role to advocate for disabled athletes on the national and world stage.

Ian’s laughter and can-do attitude was infectious and as we sat down with him to learn more about his experience and motivations, it became clear why he deserves to be a Leader.

Hi Ian, congratulations on your Leaders’ List award. How do you feel about it?

“It’s a really great feeling.  I was already so happy when I received the email that I had been shortlisted as a finalist – I thought even if I didn’t get a win, it would be nice to get some recognition of all the work that I’ve put in over the years. It has honestly doesn’t feel real yet, but it just shows that hard work pays off.”

Can you tell us how your journey with sports started?

“I was introduced to athletics by a friend when I was 13-years old.

I was initially hesitant about it but thankfully my friend was there to do it with me and push me to keep trying, and eventually I started really enjoying. I used to be bullied at school, but I felt that athletics gave me a boost of confidence as it was something that I was good at.

I stuck to it and here I am many years later! I ended up winning three gold medals at three different Special Olympics Great Britain Summer Games and now use my experiences to empower fellow individual with disabilities to pursue sports.”

Did your experience as a Special Olympics athlete shape your role as the Chairman of the ALT?

“Yes, I would say that being an athlete definitely gave me the confidence I previously lacked. I was also given training on-the-job in areas such as public speaking and leadership. I really wanted to be able to represent Team GB athletes with disabilities on the world stage to let them have their voices heard. My motivation was really to have representation led by athletes, for athletes.”

What are some of things that you learnt during your time with the Special Olympics?

“Being an athlete has really instilled drive and given me new ambitions. I have seen what people with disabilities are capable of, and I think that sports can be extremely beneficial. This is why I am so passionate about increasing access.

Being Chairperson of the ALT has definitely opened me up to new horizons and opportunities. It has made me realise that I good at being a leader, as well as a team player – it can be a difficult balancing act sometimes, but I think in order to be a good leader there has to be a balance between leading a being a good team player.”

From your experiences, do you think there are misconceptions about what autistic people and those with learning disabilities can achieve?

“Definitely! Even though we have come a long way since institutionalising people, there are still quite a lot of misconceptions of people with learning disabilities and autism. The perception that people can’t do certain things because their conditions need to be eliminated.

I think language has a big role to play in these misconceptions. For example, when I went to Abu Dhabi, I learnt that they don’t use the word ‘disability’ there. Instead, they actually use the term ‘people of determination’. I think this is wonderful as it turns something negative in to a positive and gives recognition and support to people who deviate from what society consider as ‘normal’.

Initiatives and awards like this are really important to the disabled community. There aren’t many awards out there that recognise people with disabilities. We often put in so much hard work but don’t get much recognition so having such awards is really heartening. This makes us feel valued and that our contributions have made a difference.

In my personal experience, we often have to put in a lot more effort in order to get recognition of what our contribution has brought so I think awards like this are long overdue.”

Follow Ian on social media

Twitter: @IanRacingHarper

Instagram: @ianchampionharper

"Hard work is worth it!"