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“Inclusion Starts with Sport”

Woman holding an award and standing next to a man.
Kiera is presented with an AIPS recognition trophy by Emmanuel Fantaneanu, AIPS Executive Committee

Special Olympics’ Kiera Byland was a highlight speaker at the International Sports Press Association’s Global Congress gathering taking place in Barcelona, Spain this week.

Byland delivered a powerful address at the event which celebrated 100 years of the global sports media body. Challenging the 400 international sports journalists to overhaul their thinking when it came to inclusion in sport, Byland said it was time to introduce inclusive practices into the day to day running of media organizations.

“100 years ago, people like me with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) were invisible. We were hidden away from a society that misunderstood us, feared us, even questioned why we should exist. That someone with IDD like me could also be a great sportsperson was unthinkable.

“The idea that women and girls with IDD could also be brilliant, tennis players, football players, runners, swimmers, or, like me a cyclist, was so crazy of an idea, that even the best sports journalists of the day would never have dreamed up such a story.”

Elected by her athlete peers at the Berlin World Games last summer to represent the 4 million athletes of Special Olympics International, Byland charted her personal journey as a young girl with intellectual disabilities growing up in Bolton, England, who struggled to find acceptance and understanding.

“Growing up as someone with IDD, I struggled to fit in, and I struggled to find my place in the world. In school, I was bullied because I didn’t fit in, I did odd things, I wasn’t ‘normal’. I was isolated, and I was humiliated by others. They laughed at me, taunted me, traumatized me, all because I was different, but I was just being me.

“It became so bad, I had no self-worth, no self-value and I harmed myself because of it.”

When Kiera was 15 years old, however, she began to discover that her love of sport, in particular cycling, was helping her to make friends and build confidence in herself.

Woman walking across stage holding an award.
Kiera Byland, BEM at the AIPS Sport Media Awards

“When I was 15 years old, a peer stood up for me in the school playground, he challenged the bullies, he went to the same cycle club as me and he had got to know me the “real me”.

“In 2014 I was then introduced to Special Olympics through cycling and swimming. I know it might sound a bit dramatic, but sport changed my life, it saved me.”

Determined to pursue her sporting passion, Kiera dedicated herself to training and competing, and in the years following she competed at national, regional, and international level sporting events.

She won six gold medals as a cyclist competing at two separate Special Olympics World Games, in Los Angeles in 2015 and Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Embracing her leadership skills, Kiera has also trained as a coach and despite encountering many challenges along the way, she completed her college education and has received diplomas and certificates in Sport coaching and Marketing and Business Enterprise.

In 2021, Kiera was awarded a British Empire Medal by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of her services to sport.

“I had finally found my place in the world; I then knew it was time for me to become the voice of others like me with IDD,” Kiera told the assembled sports media.

“I am a passionate sports coach; I am a Level 2 British Cycling coach and a Level 2 swimming teacher. Helping other athletes with IDD to get involved in sport is my mission. One of my goals as Congress Chair is to inspire other women and girls to follow my path, to find a sport they love, get involved, stay involved and find their voice, and then share their story.”

In what was a powerful address, Kiera challenged the sports media industry to do more to leverage their platforms to promote inclusion in sport, and society.

"We need more sports media covering Special Olympics events and telling our stories. There are over two hundred million people with IDD around the world. The goal is to reach out to every one of them and their families, to bring them the gift of sport. And you can help us.

“On behalf of four million Special Olympics athletes, I want to tell you that every athlete is ready to tell their story, to show this world what they have to offer and to celebrate our talents and abilities. Have you ever thought about hiring someone with IDD? If not, then why not?

“My story is just one example of what can happen when we choose to include. When we choose to listen to people with IDD, when we tell their stories to the rest of the world, then we are given the chance to be positive role models. Remember, I’m only one of the four million Special Olympics athletes out there. Now this is your time to choose to include.”

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