Special Olympian Chris Bunton Proves Ability Knows No Bounds
'Living with a disability doesn't mean a thing to me.'
In 2007, half a world away in Shanghai, China, Australian Special Olympics gymnast Chris Bunton looked up into a sea of faces in the arena stands, and saw his mum.
“She was watching me,” Chris said, “and she cried.”
He had just won his first Gold medal on the gymnastic rings at the World Summer Games.
“I asked her why she was crying, and she said…” he paused, his face filled with emotion.
“My mum was proud that I was representing Australia.”
It was his mum and dad’s tutoring, dedication, love and support that allowed him to realise his potential, not only in sport but in all areas of his life, he said.
“Without my parents, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Chris, from western Sydney, has managed to tick off an impressive list of achievements in his 26 years. He is a decorated athlete, a university alumni, a gymnastics coach, an office administrator and a feature film actor.
He was also born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that poses health and development challenges as well as some level of intellectual disability.
But living with a disability “doesn’t mean a thing to me,” he said.
“I feel like an ordinary human being, just like you. I feel no different to others.”
Chris found his passion for sport as a five-year-old, when his parents enrolled him in gymnastics classes to improve his fine and gross motor skills and coordination. In addition to being physically weaker than his peers, he struggled through primary school, where he felt excluded from the rest of the students and said he was often put into a “back room” because of his disability. While other kids were learning, bonding and forming friendships, Chris felt isolated.
“I couldn’t find a true friend,” he said. “People would be friendly, but then we would just go our separate ways. So I escaped to the library. I loved the library. And the books became my friends.”
But in high school, everything changed.
“No back room, I was included,” Chris said.
Even though he was “completely lost” at first, immersed in a throng of teenagers in a labyrinth school building with myriad new things to learn, Chris said he had incredibly supportive teachers who helped him navigate his student life. He continued to set and reach academic goals, including sitting the mainstream HSC exams. His mum, a former maths teacher, would spend hours helping him learn.
But it was his involvement with the Special Olympics, which he joined in 2003, that really transformed his life, giving him opportunities to train, travel, socialise and compete. The Summer World Games are held every four years, and welcome some 7,000 athletes from 170 countries to compete in 24 sports.
In the 2007 Games in Shanghai, Chris won his first Gold medal on the rings, and he backed it up with a second Gold medal on the high bar at the 2011 Games in Athens.
When the first medal was placed around his neck, he said, he was “overwhelmed”.
“I felt very proud,” he said.
“I came back to school, I showed my medal to the students, and I became more than a boy with Down syndrome. I was visible. People valued me, respected me, accepted me, and included me in their activities too.”
Exclusion, invisibility, and low expectations are the biggest challenges Australians living with intellectual disabilities face, according to Special Olympics CEO Corene Strauss.
Of the 600,000 Australians living with intellectual disability, about 75 percent are high functioning and can integrate with society quite easily if given the opportunity, she said.
“They are marginalised, they face injustice, they face inequality, and misdiagnosis on a daily basis,” she said.
Chris experienced the same type of discrimination when he first tried to join the workforce.
“I was looking for work experience in retail,” he said, “and I applied to the manager. And the manager said to me, ‘We don’t have any back rooms.’ He labelled me disabled, straight away. Which was – I was very sad.”
When Chris filled out job applications and marked down that he had Down syndrome, he said would never get an interview.
“They just didn’t know you, did they Chris,” Corene said.
Corene now employs Chris, as well as other people with intellectual disabilities, as office workers at Special Olympics Australia headquarters in Sydney.
“I cannot wait to get to work to see them and see how we work as a team,” she said.
“They bring a different dimension, and they add so much more value to our day.”
The key to building a better and more inclusive society, she said, is to break down the unconscious biases we all have about people with intellectual disabilities, and focus on and help foster what they can achieve.
“One of the things we’ve found is that people have very low expectations,” she said.
“All of us are guilty of it. Low expectations of their ability. I say to all of us, be mindful of that unconscious bias that we have. Because we need to be more inclusive of everyone, no matter the race, religion ethnicity, no matter their disability or ability.
“We need to meet head on and see each other for what we are as human beings.”
Chris' abilities are more than self-evident – although his family was surprised, as was he, about how much he could actually accomplish. On top of his athletic achievements, he has acted and appeared in numerous films and television shows, including a documentary on his life, and most recently landed the leading role of Danny, an aspiring boxer, in the Australian film Kairos.
He also coaches children’s gymnastics at his local club in Penrith.
“I love coaching,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to love about gymnastics. I get to share my knowledge with other people.”
And in his newest role, Chris has joined elite distance runner Vlad Shatrov to help coach runners ahead of the next month’s Sydney Running Festival, which will see some 33,000 pairs of feet pound the pavement as they cross the Harbour Bridge to attempt a 3.5km, 10km, half or full marathon.
This year Blackmores, the Sydney Running Festival’s major sponsor, has partnered with Special Olympics Australia in an effort to include all athletes and bring awareness to and visibility to Australians living with intellectual disabilities.
“Special Olympics Australia is an organisation that champions diversity and inclusion in society,” Blackmores CEO Richard Henfrey said.
“The athletes have overcome some incredible challenges and hurdles to get where they’ve got to, and I think as inspiration for us, in our sport and in our lives, it’s a great opportunity and lesson for us.”
All runners are welcome to join training sessions ahead of the race on September 16, where Chris and Vlad will teach dynamic stretching, warm-up, running and cool down techniques.
For Corene, seeing Special Olympics Australia partner with a major Australian health and wellness company and be invited to participate in the Sydney Running Festival has been a monumental step, and another testament to how sport and inclusion can transform lives, as well as destigmatise and empower participants living with an intellectual disability.
“How have I seen lives transformed? How much time have you got?” she said.
“It’s not just the athletes or the person with the intellectual disability who transform, it’s the parent and the carer and the support network around them. When you see a parent bring their child for the first time to a basketball court, and she says, ‘I don’t think he can do this,’ and then 20 minutes later she is in tears watching her son play and shoot his first ever hoop – that is a recognition of ability, not disability.”
Being valued in the community is a huge benefit of societal inclusion, Chris said.
“And also having the same opportunities as everyone else. I want to call upon the world to be more inclusive, so people with disabilities like me can show their abilities, and be equal."
Watch Chris' full-length documentary, Keeping Up with Chris, at AttitudeLive.com.