Grace Payne is a Special Olympics New Zealand athlete leader with autism, who competes in basketball, football, and powerlifting. She has been a passionate advocate for creating inclusive environments that allow people with intellectual disabilities to thrive and lead their best lives.
What was school like for you?
I quite liked school. I know a lot of people didn’t, but it was different for me. I have attended mainstream schools as well as schools for children with special needs. My favorite subjects were music and physical education. I also loved the Individual Evaluation Program, where each student has individual goals that he or she aims to achieve. Speaking of least favorite subjects, honestly, I don’t think I had any!
What were some challenges you faced at school?
Although fitting into school wasn’t a big obstacle for me, I did face a few challenges. Finger-pointing children, questioning “what’s wrong with you?”, “Are you pregnant?” it’s just hurtful. I wish people would stop doing that. As someone who faced bullying during childhood, I think the best advice I have for people who might be going through something similar in their life is: please talk about it. I didn’t, but I should have. Talk to people you trust. They can be your friends, family, teachers, anyone you feel comfortable with!
What are common misconceptions about people with intellectual disabilities?
People often tend to believe that those with intellectual disabilities can’t be independent and rely on others to live their lives. A lot of us can live independently, like everyone else. We can work, we can go to school, we can carry out tasks. Some people may take longer than others to do things, and that’s okay. We all adapt differently.
What do you wish people knew about autism?
The first thing is, people are born with autism. They do not develop it. It’s a neurological disease. The second thing is- all people with autism are different. One person might not have the same symptoms as another. People think of autism as a spectrum, somewhat linear in nature. I like to see it as more of a wheel with different colors, where each color represents a different facet, like communicative abilities, sensory needs etc. While I might be able to communicate properly, I can have trouble driving. Likewise, someone else might be able to drive with ease, but have difficulty in communication.
How do you build awareness about people with intellectual disabilities?
I like social media. I use it as a medium for raising awareness. One thing we all can and must do is help our families and friends understand intellectual disability better. The cycle doesn’t stop with one person. You educate your friends; they educate theirs and so on. Another thing I do is visit schools or organizations and talk about intellectual disability. I think it’s imperative to educate children, so that they grow up to ask the right questions. People can be curious, but they tend to overlook the need to word their questions properly. Instead of saying “what’s wrong with you”, the question should be “what’s your disability?”
What have you been working on lately?
I’m currently working on a transportation app like Uber with Jack Green, a Youth Leader. The app, named ‘SOGO’ is built for the Special Olympics community of people with intellectual disabilities. The idea is to have volunteer drivers pick up athletes and drop them to trainings, to make sure nobody feels excluded. I think if we take away their feelings of isolation and exclusion, we can improve their mental health!
Grace’s hope is to see this world become a more inclusive place for people like her. Her advice to all of us? “Life doesn’t come with a manual; I didn’t get one. Keep being yourself, don’t change for anyone! Whatever you’re going through, you’ll get through it. I promise you!”