Social Inclusion via Gymnastics

Unified sports brings people with and without intellectual disabilities (ID) together on the same team. It is considered a good way to break down stereotypes about persons with intellectual disability. Prof Cheung Siu-yin of the Department of Sport, Physical Education and Health at HKBU invented a new sport that suits people with different physical conditions known as "unified Gymnastics for All (GFA)" to promote social inclusion.


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Prof Cheung Siu-yin


GFA is a type of recreational gymnastics that offers a varied range of physical activities for people of all ages and abilities. As the Chairperson of the Gymnastics Association of Hong Kong, China, Prof Cheung has years of experience in promoting GFA to different segments of the society, including children, older adults and people with ID. She thinks that GFA has huge potential as a means of promoting social inclusion by providing a platform for people with and without ID to develop.


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Students with ID surprise everyone with their gymnastic moves


Bridging students via fun day

Building on her past success, in October 2016, Prof Cheung launched a knowledge transfer project aimed at developing the first-ever inclusive GFA programme in a primary school setting with the support of KTO's Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) Seed Fund. The unified GFA programme engaged 97 pupils from two mainstream primary schools and 106 students from two special schools. From the mainstream schools, Primary 4 to 6 students were selected as they are mature enough to understand the concept of individual differences and are able to get along with students with special needs. The students from the special schools who have mild intellectual disabilities were in the same age range as their mainstream peers.


Briefing and training sessions on GFA were provided to the students, with additional information on individual differences introduced to the students from mainstream schools. After four training sessions, each mainstream school paired up with a special school to participate in the Unified GFA Fun Day held at Shek Mun Campus of HKBU. The Unified GFA Fun Day had a party-like atmosphere and students were divided into teams made up of both mainstream and special students. Led by HKBU student volunteers who had received training from certified GFA coaches, team members worked together to choreograph their own gymnastic performances. Prof Cheung says that a competitive element was added to enhance participation. The scoring system was not based on difficulty or execution. What counted was the creativity and enthusiasm displayed.


Dispelling misconceptions, fostering interaction Though it was the first time the children met each other, their level of cooperation far exceeded Prof Cheung's expectations. She was particularly touched to see the students helping their peers from special schools to carry out some gymnastic moves. The potential of the special students also surprised Prof Cheung as she did not expect them to carry out certain gymnastic moves, such as cartwheel. Prof Cheung thinks that this demonstrates how gymnastics can serve as a platform to bring their talent into full play.


To measure the impact of the programme, the research team conducted a pre-and post-survey. The results showed that only 65 per cent of the mainstream students had previous interaction with students with ID. After participating in the unified GFA programme, students from mainstream schools showed better understanding and empathy towards students with ID, for instance, fewer students held the misconception that intellectual disability is transmissible. This result proves that unified GFA activities can help eliminate the boundary between mainstream and special students. Moreover, 82 per cent of the mainstream students had a positive view of the programme, but Prof Cheung reminds us not to neglect the fact that six per cent actually felt disappointed or unhappy, which suggests that more needs to be done to promote social inclusion. As for students with ID, 97 per cent of them felt happy about the experience. The student helpers from HKBU agreed that the activities improved their perception of people with ID and inclusion activities. The programme also enhanced generic skills such as leadership and communication skills, which help develop the HKBU graduate attributes. Lastly, 89 per cent of all participants indicated willingness to join similar activities in the future.


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Students from mainstream schools help their peers from special schools to carry out gymnastic moves


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All children, regardless of their abilities, find joy in unified GFA


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Unified GFA performance at the 2019 Hong Kong Gymnastics For All Festival in Queen Elizabeth Stadium


Lack of resources impedes development

To extend the impact of her research, Prof Cheung launched a Research Impact Support and Enhancement (RISE) Fund project. Implemented in the community setting, the project targets adults with mild intellectual disabilities and the elderly, who have more free time. The project conducted in collaboration with the Chinese Young Men's Christian Association of Hong Kong (YMCA) and Hong Chi Association, involved two sheltered workshops and two elderly centres. While it was arranged in a similar way to the one in a school setting, this project provided a much greater incentive to the participants as the two best teams were selected to perform at the 2019 Hong Kong Gymnastics For All Festival in Queen Elizabeth Stadium. This was a memorable moment for the participants since most of them did not have any previous stage experience.


Despite the similar arrangement of the two projects, Prof Cheung says the challenges were quite different. In the school setting, the greatest challenge is the reluctance of mainstream schools to join the programme owing to the difficulty in squeezing extracurricular activities into an already tight schedule of their students. In the case of sheltered workshops and elderly centres, the biggest challenge was the lack of resources, such as exercise space and facilities. Prof Cheung thinks this must be addressed in order to further promote unified GFA in society.


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Lack of exercise space is the biggest challenge in promoting unified GFA in the community


Exemplary unified sports

The findings of the two projects were presented at two international conferences, namely the European Congress of Adapted Physical Activity in the United Kingdom and the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique Gymnastics for All Colloquium held in Canada. Prof Cheung also introduced the unified GFA programme to members of the Special Olympics International and received positive feedback. Special Olympics Hong Kong praised unified GFA, calling it an exemplar of unified sports for individuals with and without ID which could further develop the field and promote inclusion through sports.


Due to the beneficial impact on society, Prof Cheung won the Knowledge Transfer Award 2017/18. Although she never expected to win, she happily accepted this award as an affirmation of her effort in the promotion of unified GFA. In the future, she hopes to showcase unified GFA in international events and promote it to the whole world.