TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 13: Susie Bennett-Yeo

A podcast with Susie Bennett-Yeo
Susie Bennett-Yeo

Susie Bennett-Yeo

Special Olympics

Susie Bennett-Yeo has been a leader in the field of inclusive sport for the best part of three decades. She has worked locally, nationally and internationally in that time as a strong and passionate advocate and practitioner for sport for people with disability. Hear her story as only Susie can tell it!

Transcript TIC TALK with Susie Bennett-Yeo

Peter:

Well welcome to today’s Tic Talk. It’s a great pleasure to introduce to you Susie Bennett-Yeo. Hello, Susie.

Susie:

Hello, Peter, how are you?

Peter:

I’m good thanks. I’ve known Susie for many years now, I don’t know how to describe you, Susie. I should have prepared something. But Susie is one of the leading people in Australia around Inclusion opportunities for people with disability. Has been for a long time, an extremely long time. So let’s go back to the start by going back to when you first got involved. How did you get involved in this area?

Susie:

It was actually, we’re going back a really long way, in primary school. We had the Endeavor Foundation, this special workshop, you know the Corinda Workshop was across the street from my primary school. One of my friends in the neighborhood, her brother had, her older brother had Downs Syndrome and he used to go to that workshop.

So he would walk down with all of us to school, which was around 8 or 9 blocks, and he would walk down with us and then he would walk home with us, because we all walked to school in those days. And he used to get dressed as Superman occasionally and some kids were giving him a hard time and so we all sort of stepped up and said, back away, you know he’s with us, kind of thing and he was just always part of our group. We just never saw him in different way, the fact that he just went across the road for school.

When I was in high school, Daphne Peri, tried to get Special Olympics started and she ran a Try Hockey Day at the sample school at TSS and she asked a few of us who had been playing hockey for a while if we’d like to go and help out, so we did and Dr. Day, Dr. John (01:57) Day was the principal and he gave us the school facilities for free. And it never got started then it just sort of lacked, I think the impetus to get going.

And then when I was living Canada, I actually worked in a group home with individuals with intellectually disabilities and that was my first experience of anyone with an intellectual disability in that kind of environment. And they were involved in Special Olympics and that was where I saw sport being played. But I think previously, probably should have mentioned, before that my first job at college when I was at college, I did three field work placements at sporting rallies with Vicky Ruffolo (02:41).

Peter:

Sporting rally, I will say is kind of (02:47) it’s for people with disabilities.

Susie:

Yeah, it’s an organization for people with physical disabilities, which includes vision and amputees as well. And so I did my field work placements here and we worked out of an office in the city so there was really no facility and they didn’t have a recreation officer in (03:05) college, I basically stepped straight in as recreation officer, the first one of the organization in 1982.

Peter:

82.

Susie:

Yes.

Peter:

Wow. So obviously those first experiences kind of helped frame and motivate you to keep going in this field because what exactly—I’m trying to get to what exactly—why did you keep going?

Susie:

You know, I looked back and sort of pondered this but I think it was more the fact that these guys just didn’t have an opportunity and we did things like we went canoeing at the Lake (03:49) and there was no specialized equipment. We used to lift people in and out of vans, we actually tied canoes together, talk about (04:01) safety now but planks, we put planks and tied them together and put people in wheelchairs on top of the boat.

Peter:

Not the best—

Susie:

Not the best invention of equipment that we’ve come up with but—and the guys actually then got into the kayaks and the canoes and it was more along that when you saw these guys that never, ever sat in a canoe, had never, ever gone camping under tents before, and just—it was something that you and I just take for granted and I think it was there was a lot of experiences around just the gratitude. And you go, well you shouldn’t really have to be that grateful for something the rest of us do. You know and I think it was more—

Peter:

So was it kind of a sense of injustice in a way—

Susie:

No, it just didn’t—I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have those opportunities but I think it was more about finding ways to get people to be able to have those opportunities and I—and there was all that information and I think about sport and people with intellectual disabilities and it’s like, they’ll never be able to understand the concept and they’ll never be able to get the grasp of basketball because it’s so complicated, they’ll never be able to focus. Someone with autism will never be able to focus long enough to run a 1500 and when you see someone who’s at the beginning of their race doing all their tics and clicks and carryings on, that when that race whistle goes, they just—they focus. And they actually lose all of their tics and (05:35) and they become a runner.

They actually become an athlete and a runner and they run their 1500 and they run their 100 or they walk their 100 but while they’re doing that, they’re an athlete and nothing else matters. And when they’ve finished, they’ve achieved what—they get the same level, if not greater, appreciation or satisfaction out of doing what they’ve just done. And I think, if you see that often enough, you go—it’s so—it validates what you do.

Peter:

It becomes really quite cool, doesn’t it? And with other people around as well, it affects others who see that sort of thing.

Susie:

Yeah we often think that a lot of people that we’ve worked with over the years, when they see that, we know we’ve got them, they will come back and help, they will volunteer and you’ve sort of sucked them into the vortex of what you do and they see that and go oh wow, these guys are brilliant. Like you know, you see someone do a three point shot and yet struggles to count bus money but the sport, they’re enabled to just be an athlete. And I think that’s really important that suddenly all the labels get left on the side and they can participate as an athlete.

Peter:

Fast forward. So I want to talk about your work these days (06:58) particularly interesting for people, can you explain your kind of role (07:02) the last few years in particular?

Susie:

Sure. Being involved in the program of Sports Connect, that was Sports Connect has sort of morphed and changed and (07:14) is actually carrying the banner in Queensland and it’s around working—I’ve done some work in the Redlands area which is working on a community development model. So it’s actually about linking disability service providers and local sporting organizations and the initial discussion is usually around getting them to think that way because they’re in the same community but they don’t ever cross. And yet there’s a whole—you’ve got disability service providers trying to get people with disabilities involved in their local community but they’ve left out this whole sector of sport and recreation and physical activity.

And people in sporting clubs constantly seeking members and volunteers and they don’t ever think to go to a disability service provider where they might have anywhere upwards to 120 people living in that community and while you might go, not everybody’s going to want to get involved in sport, you’ll get three or four or 20 or whatever who do. They might not all want to play because at 45 it’s very hard to take up rugby league but they might love rugby league and they might really enjoy going to (08:33) rugby league watching the A grade games, having a beer going with a group of friends to watch the local football and they might actually get involved and become like what we call a non-playing role. So they might actually have a skill that they can use to support their local sporting clubs.

Peter:

Now some people might see—and I’ve heard over the years say that non-playing role is not about inclusion, it’s about participation in the sport, actually taking part in the sport. What would you say to that if someone said well, a non-playing role, that’s not really a good position?

Susie:

I would say to them talk to Susie-Bennett Yeo, she doesn’t play anymore but she’s still very involved in sport. And I think you do get lots of people, we had a gentleman here who was totally blind and he was the chair of the (09:20) car driver’s association of Queensland. And you can see where I’m going, well how does that work? And you say well he’s not a driver, obviously and he’s not a navigator either but he just loves being in the car.

Peter:

I wouldn’t explain it, I’d just leave it—

Susie:

Yeah you don’t have to, you can see him ruminate on it and go oh, well yeah. So it’s more about—if you look at the reasons why we play sport and it is for most people, the competition is sort of fairly low, friends keeping fit, being part of a group, they’re the things at the top of the list. So the actual playing of the sport and competing and the winning is sort of down their ladder a little bit. So if you can get the same sort of benefits without actually taking the field, which is your friends participating in the community of sport, then you can actually get people involved. And I think people are looking to be a part of their community and when you move into a community, sport is a perfect way to become part of that community.

Peter:

Now in sport (10:30) that as well because people sometimes think it is about the winning, it is about the competition and certainly the hierarchy going in sport, that’s what it’s about. So all that stuff about being part of the community and sense of self, all those things, have you encountered that in your trying to make partnerships between disability organizations and sports clubs, they’re after people not just as members but they want winners, they want—

Susie:

Absolutely. And you can usually sell it, like I think too that sport at that level, if you look at the number of people that actually make it to that level and the base—the number of the base that they’ve come from, it’s a huge base that filters, it’s like a funnel that filters down. If you look at how the netball—the diamonds, there’s what, seven or 12 in the (11:26) and look at how—what’s the participation rate of netball in Australia. So the percentages just drop down very quickly and I think that most people realize that they’re not going to make that A grade or top (11:40) level so they’re actually pretty happy to play. And I think the older you get, masters have sprung up and the old farts league and there’s a whole range of leagues that have grown out of people—touch football, don’t want to play full contact rugby but touch football grew out of that and look at the number around just social competition that comes up. And I think that—

Peter:

So you’re trying to sell that message to some sports—

Susie:

Well we sell—well the reality is that someone with a disability, if they’re playing rugby league or basketball, it’s about what we sell is the fact that they’ve got another bum on the seat and with that person comes a network. So it’s not about Susie Bennet-Yeo turning up to play basketball, it’s about Susie Bennett-Yeo bringing her husband and her two kids and her friends to come and watch and it’s about bringing up those numbers—

Peter:

Now that’s quite a powerful sell, isn’t it?

Susie:

It is, yeah, yeah. And you say—I might not be the greatest goals shooter in the world but you know, I can actually run a canteen or I can sell raffle tickets on a Saturday. And people sort of suddenly think beyond the winning. We’ve got people who—a gentleman who loves gardening and he’s (13:10). But what do most sporting groups have? A facility. They have either a clubhouse or a cricket pitch or a football (13:20), they have a certain amount—you know if you’ve got a little clubhouse, why wouldn’t you want someone who could come and build a garden for you and be happy to maintain it? It enhances the ambience of your club and you’ve got someone else who’s part of your group.

Peter:

What about some of the technical aspects of it? I’m sure you’ve come across this as well where we’re not trained to deal with people with disabilities so we don’t have any trained coaches or staff, we don’t have competition structures for people with disabilities specifically, we don’t understand that stuff.

Susie:

Yeah. One of the things—and we usually take them back to their beginning coaching course that they’ve done. Because one of the first things that you learn as a coach is to look at the skill and level of ability of the athletes that you’re working with and the players that you’re working with and you modify your training program to suit those individuals. So what we do is we actually sort of appeal to their vanity a little bit sort of by saying you’ve got the knowledge, you really do have the knowledge that it takes in the sport and you also then say—and the person with the disability has a voice, they can actually tell you how it works for them so you actually become part of a team. Their parents can tell you what works for them and what doesn’t work for them.

So it’s actually about forming a bit of a personal relationship with that person to find out what is the best way, what do you want to get out of this sport and how can we help you get there? And you appeal to them and say look, you’ve got that ability as a coach, if you’re a really good coach—and they go oh, am I? Because I’m a good coach, then you’ve got the knowledge and you’ve got the skills, it’s just a different type of information that you’re gathering.

Peter:

Okay so what if I’m that good coach and I’m saying oh, but I don’t know anything about cerebral palsy, I don’t know anything about Down Syndrome, I’ll have to go on a course to understand this.

Susie:

Well we often—well as you know, we went from the medical model to the social model and—because we used to do the coaching athletes with intellectual disabilities, with physical disabilities, with (15:31) but that doesn’t get to why you coach or how you coach. All that gives you is the information that you can get offline. You can Google any of those disabilities and get a million and one hits on it. So the medical implications, again, people with Down Syndrome—atlantoaxial instability, you can find that out.

Most—I would say 99% of parents of a child with Down Syndrome know about AARI and what the implications are for it. So they’re not going to go into 10 meter springboard diving, that’s the reality of it. But there’s no reason they can’t do gymnastics if they’re that inclined and there are parameters around it but the people with disabilities and their families know those. So all you need to do is have a discussion with those people and open up that line of communication if you’ve got any issues or if you come across something you’re not sure of, you just ask the question as you would if a kid presents with a tape on his knee, you know? What do you do? You don’t sideline him, you find out okay, what happened, what can you do, what can’t you do and then you work within that.

Peter:

Do you think there’s less—probably years ago a lot of discussions were done, do you think there’s less of that these days with sports, do you think they’re—okay, they understand that it’s (17:03) my sport?

Susie:

I think so. I think they’re a lot more open to it now, I think those barriers about knowing every bit about the medical history of someone, you don’t ask that of anyone else but obviously there are medical implications and you, again, risk management as health and safety, you need to know about any medical conditions that will impact on the person’s ability to play the sport or to participate. So I think that sport understands that there are a lot more people around that they can ask. Like we get a lot of—well not a lot but (17:42) sport knows that they can ring us here and get information if they need it.

They know that if they get approached by a group, say a disability service provider wants to bring four or five guys down to just have a go at their come and try day then they can actually just phone us and say okay, who should I be talking to? And we’ll often just say have you spoken to the person who contacted you originally to say I’m bringing down six guys with intellectual disabilities who want to come and have a go at footie. And often there is nothing that will stop them from doing that you know and they might want to get some background information if there’s any behavioral stuff that might be out of the ordinary for other people but it’s usually other people with the issue, not the people with the disability, they just want to go and kick the footie.

And people, it’s that fear of the unknown from people. So as soon as you just have that open discussion and put it all out on the table, (18:47) athletes away, a young girl who had a phobia about birds, now her parents didn’t actually tell us about that because they thought that might stop us from taking her, which happened than it does now because they all have the right to go. But we were just like, why would you not tell us? She’s a track athlete so we’re going to be outside, chances are, a flock of birds, pigeons or something, is going to fly, which it did at National Games and she just hit the ground screaming. It was so traumatic for her coach, for her team members, everybody, just because that conversation wasn’t had.

And we had the conversation with the parents and they said we were so worried that you weren’t going to take her because of that. We said well all we do now is we manage it. We know and we can manage it.

Peter:

It was never a question of not taking her.

Susie:

No, no. And I think if people are open and honest in their discussions then there’s nothing to be lost. Nothing to be lost.

Peter:

What next for Susie Bennett-Yeo?

Susie:

Well we’ve had a bit of a restructuring, I’ll be working with state sporting organizations so I’ve been given six (20:14) on their final leg of their journey with us so we’re just helping them to assist to put in place their processes so they can go forward without (20:27) we’ll always be available, obviously, by phone or to have a chat with them about things that have been happening but their now—sports connect or the philosophy of inclusion is embedded in some major—

Peter:

A nice position.

Susie:

It is, it is. Because we’ve often said, no CEO, we won’t go because if we don’t get to talk to the guy that makes the strategic and policy decisions then as you know, it becomes too reliant on one person and if that person leaves, then it’s not embedded anywhere. So if it’s embedded in a job description, if it’s embedded in outcomes, if it’s embedded in strategic and operational plans, then if one person leaves, that’s okay because the documents are still there and they will still go on.

So we’ve got a couple of new ones who just signed up so their journey has just begun and I’ll actually be working at that level with people, which is kind of exciting as well and still doing the voluntary—I’ll always do the voluntary because I’m out there working with athletes with intellectual disabilities in leadership roles. So we do train them up in governance as well so they can sit on committees, so they can actually sit on regional committees as an athlete representative and be the voice of the athletes and they understand what that is so we do a training program with them.

Peter:

Might do a podcast or an episode around that one.

Susie:

Yeah, it’s actually very cool. It’s very cool to see and again, these guys get bunched and they go, I’ll never—they can never make a decision, like why would they do that? But they are so thoughtful, so thoughtful that we set them up so they’ve got unlimited money, what’s your region look like, okay, your budget’s been cut, now what do you cut? And they have to make decisions, there’s usually seven or eight athletes in the group and they’ve got to agree on what goes and what doesn’t go. And we had—there’s usually one or two guys that just rise that you go, why haven’t we nailed this kid before, who goes well, we’re a sports organization, this is our mandate, this is what we need to concentrate on. And you go, oh God, I know people in management committees that don’t get that yet.

And they’re the voice of the athletes and we track—other athlete as ambassadors because it’s very rare to have a skill set where you can be good at everything so we recognize that they—we’ve got athletes who are very good at public speaking and meeting and greeting and pressing the flesh and you know, they do that amazingly well. And their voice, it’s them, it’s not us.

Peter:

Susie Benett-Yeo, thank you very much.

Susie:

My pleasure.