Ben Haack
The following post is from Special Olympics Australia athlete Ben Haack, a long-time athlete advocate and public voice of the movement.

Hi, my name is Ben Haack.  I’m an Athlete Leader from Australia.  I have been involved in Special Olympics for fourteen years.  I have Aspergers, which is commonly known as ASD.  I’m writing about a very powerful commodity in Special Olympics and that’s called Empathy.

The usual method I use to bring about Empathy is to tell people of what my life was like before I joined Special Olympics.

Where should I start?

The first sixteen years of my life usually horrify people.  I’ll start with the worst day of my life.

A day before that worst day, I got my nose broken by a kid on the bus.  I fought back and beat him up pretty badly.

The next day, I went back to school and faced up to my fate.  The thing is, that kid was in a grade lower than me, which meant that there would be hell to pay.  I actually had to convince my family I can go to school, seeing as my nose was in bad shape and they knew that it was likely I would get beaten up badly.

Well, come lunchtime it was on.  I was eating lunch with a few people when a group of about six or seven students jumped me.  They held me as they hit me repeatedly in the face and stomach.  Well, I got so fed with this that I fought back again.  I managed to throw five of them off me, before I smacked this kid hard and threw him against the door.  I then turned around only to get fly kicked in the face!

Lunchtime finished and I went to class.  I sat in the classroom, bleeding profusely, my shirt ripped, and with a really good black eye!

I was called up to the principal’s office at the end of the day.  I went down to the office, full of dread.  Well, the principal proceeded to give one of those lectures where you feel very small and weak.  He then ended it with the line:  ‘I’m going to make your life a living hell!”

Well something changed in me at that moment.  I proceeded to tell him to shove that up somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine!  He then repeated the same line.  I then said that never in a million years could he do anything to make my life any worse than it already was.  I then proceeded to go through it with him, how suspending me would mean I would not get beaten up, how giving me detention would mean I was in a safe place, how making me do gardening or running laps would also mean I was in a safe place, etc.

Well, I’m fully convinced that was the day I got diagnosed.  I believe that this day put me onto the path of becoming the person I’m today.

But here’s the important bit.  This is not about me.  This is about the fact that in every country in the world, there are people out there who are getting treated this way or worse.  There are a lot of young men, in particular, who also get thrown around every school in their area and quite often end up being home schooled. And there are an awful lot of people like me who end up in prison, the Psych Ward, homeless, oron drugs.

I know this, because I work with a lot of young men who are going through this, and I have seen some of the research that is out there on Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, ODD.  In other words, people in the ASD spectrum.

Now when I got diagnosed, the stats read that there was one of me to every 1000 people.  Now in Australia it reads one of me to every 100 people.  In America it’s 1 to 88, and Korea 1 to 66!  So, what do you expect is going to happen to the vast majority of these people, who from the moment there are placed in mainstream school, get an education, in abuse, disrespect, neglect?  This usually leaves them with anger management, suicidal tendencies, and mental health issues!  Now, of course that’s if they even get to go to school.

So you see you’re not going to help people like me if the vast majority of Special Olympics programs are based in special schools.  We need to expand somehow, no matter how difficult.

This is why we have to be fearless and relentless.  For me, the reminder of why I have to dig up my worst moments, because I truly don’t want to, is when I work with people with ASD and I get to see them come to the program with black eyes, how they get suspended all the time, how they get shifted to different schools all the time, or there at home doing nothing, being nothing, because the world is saying that is what they are!

Now I know I’ve so far only talked about one disability so far, which some would consider a mistake, but we all have a point of reference, somewhere where we start.

Believe me; people with Down syndrome and Autism don’t exactly have the whole world as their oyster neither.

So, remember that if we can get the Politicians to get their Politician’s hat off, if we can get the Teachers to take their Teacher’s hat off, if we can get the Carers, Psychologists, Nurses, wider world, etc to take their hats off and put on the hat of being a parent, brother of sister and looked at the world of disability from that point of view, then believe me, things will change.

You see, what I’m trying to do is to be more than just about myself and what I’ve been through.  I’m trying to use that to remind people of the power of empathy, which simply means putting yourself in that person’s position and asking yourself: ‘How would I feel?”  If we can get people to successfully do this, then watch what happens.

It’s not an easy assignment doing this, but if we use our athletes and their stories correctly, if we empower them to have a voice, if we truly make this an athlete centred movement, then we have that commodity, empathy, we just need to bring that out of others!  So, bring on the Athletes!

7 thoughts on “The Power of Empathy

  1. Actually I do know how you feel because I have tried many times to get others to understand but some are limited. I have 2 adult children that have 2 different challanges and it takes more than a little understanding…..I still deal with some people that seems like it kills them to understand but I take it with a grain of salt because I can’t make them understand….

  2. Pingback: Sun-Beams: May 26, 2013

  3. Thankyou Ben for what we had just read,
    Ben I was also bullied back in my day back in the early 60s when I went to School around year 4, I had a massive growth and my body delevoped quite big at that time for my age,
    Cause I was always head and shoulders above everyone else in the school and had a learning problem which caused my education delay I was always bullied by boys fo upto 10 at a time come lunch time, it was always my worst time of the day,
    after turning my back and trying to ignore it which was encouraged by my parents to do I would just explode and start throwing punches at the nearest kid in anger that was near me,
    I would often then get sent to the princables office and get 6 strokes of the cane for defending myself against imtimidation and bulling at that time, I was always called stalky and was never ever accepted by other kids,
    One day I decided that seeing that i was always that last picked to be in a team cause I was not good at sport i decided to start playing dirty and square up against some of my enimes and went out after them 0ne on one and in the end i was the first picked by a team captain cause of the reputation i built for being aggressive on the field and in the end by the time i went to high school i had the respect from other students at my school.
    the bulling stoped,
    when i went to high school i again started to get bullied by year 10 11 and 12 students cause i was in the lowest class in school and had a reputation as being a unstable student ,
    after 2nd year high I had had anoth of Education and being at highschool so i done the bolt one day after a dispute with my teacher and for 3 weeks i roamed the streets and parks before the education department came looking for me and attended my dads home asking why i was not attending school,
    mum and dad comfronted me about it and after argueing with them i was finally marched back to school by my parents every day to make shore i attended school and even droped of by car,
    I left High school at the end of year 2 and got a job as a office boy down at Cockatoo Island and for 18 mnths I worked there before going into Boilermaking but again I struggled with the education and again became the bullied boy at work,
    I started a friendship with a boilermaker who I think took pitty on me and became good friends with and he took me under his wings and helped me threw my trade and was there at the end when I recieved my Trade papers from Tech,
    I really gave him thanks for his quidness as with my parents who stood by me in thoses years at school and the years of growning up as a youngster and a teenager,
    Sadly most of theses services of today was only minal back in thoses days and cost lost of money and not much help was around like it is today,

  4. Ben, thank you for sharing your own story and experience. I enjoyed it very much and hear your words and message – together we can! Empathy can drive change and a better understanding Cheers mate

  5. What an incredible speech! Thank you for sharing and your insight. I am proud to be the parent of a special olympic athlete as well as a coach. I believe that when my athletes play together as a team they learn to think about others as well. Everyone on my team is valued as an individual and as a teammate. Something too often people with disabilities don’t expereince.

  6. This is a powerful message. Thank you for sharing your story and I hope everyone who reads this takes a moment to think about “how they would feel.”

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