We just need to make it work – my Mixed Ability journey!

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Erasmus+. Yes of course!

That was my answer when I was asked to participate in the Mixed Ability Rugby for All (MIXAR) project back in 2018.

Being able to go abroad and learn from like-minded people, who wouldn’t want to do that?

As you notice I was immediately delighted. But I could never ever have imagined that this experience would have such an impact on my personal life.

Being involved in the MIXAR project made me look at the world from a new perspective. It made me realise how things can be different from what I had always seen.

What inspired me the most were undoubtedly the other participants’ creativity, experience, and above all their courage to go where no one had gone before. And of course the role of IMAS, who provided the framework in which everyone could learn from and with each other. In Bradford, for the first time, I saw disabled people leading presentations, telling their stories, and becoming educators using their ‘lived experience’.

The 2nd MIXAR meeting in Bradford, April 2018

Equally important was the hands-on experience with the Halifax Magpies, “just another rugby team.” Rugby was played and everyone did their part and had fun playing the sport we love. What at first seemed unusual and perhaps even unfeasible, just happened there and then. And I was allowed to witness it and join in. It was there where the penny dropped, and specifically when I saw the ‘least obvious’ participant, a guy with severe autism, being involved within the Halifax Magpies just like any other player. When I spoke to his father after the game, over a beer in the clubhouse, I was moved to see a father so proud because his son was also a member of his local club, and could have fun as a rugby player, being treated as equal. The twinkle in the eyes of the old man who was talking so lovingly about his son still warms me up inside every time I think back.

The MIXAR session at Halifax RUFC, April 2018

After being allowed to participate in the Erasmus+ project, I know this: it doesn’t take a lot of money, attitude, or policy to change a mindset. We can make a difference. By being there for each other, supporting where necessary, and by providing the right space for others to develop.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be addressed by someone who seemed like a charismatic ‘Greek orator’ because that is precisely what Doc, one of the IMAS ambassadors, sounded like! He told us that a richer social life extends a person’s life expectancy by 10 years. Logical right? And if you manage to trigger the intrinsic motivation of your athletes, the sky is the limit for their development and desire to go for something.

Mixed Ability rugby teams in Belgium

There is also quite a bit to tell from all the other participating countries of the project. But you’ll have to ask me that when our paths cross in this small world.

For what regards my own story, it might seem unbelievable, but segregation is still the norm in Belgium.

Unfortunately, we have a history and habit of exclusion. I noticed this when starting a Mixed Ability rugby team and even more so when started to recruit players for this new squad. Now, post-Covid 19, we are back at it, to achieve sustainable growth for Mixed Ability rugby in Belgium.

Because if there is anything this pandemic has taught us, is that no one wants to be excluded and denied full participation in society.

So, we just need to make it work.

After being a railway officer for over 20 years, I have decided to change my professional career. After thoroughly looking around and considering what I wanted and what was possible, I have now found the ideal job.

From April 2022, I will be working for a social profit organisation called “Konekt“. Fully believing in an inclusive society – Konekt is radically committed to building a world in which people with and without disabilities live, learn, and work together. We translate this into action through training, awareness-raising, and collaboration with the education and employment sectors. Together with partners throughout Flanders, we make people stronger and set society in motion.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made this journey possible and has experienced it for inspiring me.

Erasmus+, yes of course!

Best regards and hope to see many of you in Cork.

Geert

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