By Rachel Williams
You only need to watch the Olympics and Paralympics to see that sport is a leveller – it brings people together no matter your background.
It was with that concept in mind that GingerCloud Foundation’s world-first Modified Rugby Program was established in Queensland to create social change by providing an inclusive pathway using club-based sport.
Megan Elliott and her husband Anthony started GingerCloud in 2014 to start removing barriers experienced by young people with autism, aspergers and other learning and perceptual disabilities.
The modified rugby union sport program was GingerCloud’s inaugural community engagement program. It started with one team and has since grown to include 31 teams and 335 participants spread across 14 clubs from North Queensland to the ACT.
There are four divisions within the program to cater for people aged 7-23, with each MRP Player having their own PlayerMentor on the field supporting them.
Two of the divisions involve players being matched with their PlayerMentor via a one-on-one allied health process, with university and high school students taking art in the program thorough GingerCloud’s Disability Inclusion Leadership Program.
“It was a world-first specifically modified program using allied health university students and high school students to work alongside our children with autism and other learning or cognitive disabilities,” explains Megan.
“We have students studying speech pathology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, sports science and special-ed who will have these players as their clients into the future so they are passionate about achieving great outcomes.”
The rules of the game have been modified to provide support structures around communication and visual supports for participants.
“There is no tackling, just double- handed tag, and the players have an on- field PlayerMentor who provide one-on-one coaching to model correct behaviours with their social skills, such as giving hi-5s and working as a team,” explains Megan.
“Not only does it give children with the disability an opportunity, it also trains the PlayerMentor about inclusivity and diversity with the whole program generating social change.
“There are four key areas we promote – that participants feel safe and secure, they feel understood, they experience success and they belong.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in the under six program, the ‘golden oldies’ or in our MRP program – you are just another team at your local rugby club.”
The inspiration behind the program was Megan’s son Max, who is now 18. He is part of the 14 per cent of the population living with a cognitive disability.
“He couldn’t access any team sport because he was non-verbal until he was 8 and had no communication skills and his behaviour was very extreme, so it was a big challenge until we found a great speech therapist,” Megan recalls.
“We have seen a speech therapist for three hours a week ever since and he now has a part-time job at the restaurant at the local rugby club while he is completing his certificate II in kitchen operations as part of his school-based traineeship – we could never imagined that being his future when we developed the vision.”
GingerCloud’s Modified Rugby Program helped Max play sport win a team environment for the first time. It also helped develop his social skills and confidence.
Max’s story provides inspiration to many other participants and sporting clubs – with the foundation creating a video library to share success stories.
“When Max was little there was no image of what a young person with cognitive disability could achieve by the time they were 18,” Megan says.
“We chose to focus on what they can achieve and we are constantly learning so much more about what our kids can do when given the opportunity.
“Sport is an amazing way to bring people together and often the real power happens on the sidelines between the parents and the siblings of the athletes and mentors in our program.
“Instead of it being a one-off gala day once a year for example, this is a weekly program. There is a real joy in seeing long- term relationships be formed when they are playing rugby for two hours a week, every week. The relationships between them are normalised and it creates lasting, meaningful change.”
GingerCloud is a registered charity with 5 office employees and 31 coaches engaged during the rugby season. Team managers all work on a voluntary basis.
The concept has been a resounding success.
“We have enquiries globally about this program, that’s how successful it has been. We would love to expand it further, but it comes down to the money and we need significant funding.
“You don’t grow out of autism. The services required and the needs remain as our MRP players get older and finish school. This is why our Disability Inclusive Leadership Program is so important for our PlayerMentors because these leaders will go on to create employment opportunities for people with autism or aspergers or other disabilities in their world places.”