Several players with Down syndrome recently featured in New Zealand’s first fully disabled rugby team in Christchurch.

The team is called Polar Bears and is part of High Schools Old Boys’ and an international organisation called Tri Trust Rugby.

The team has 20 players with intellectual and/or physical disabilities and are aged between 12 and 40.

After months of training, the players were buzzing to take the field, along with ‘enablers’ who helped facilitate the game to get everyone involved.

The team’s ultimate goal is to have other teams to play against domestically, and one day internationally.

Jolt Dance in Christchurch has teamed up with Belmont Productions to create the short film “The Call Me Sam” to offer a different perspective on disability, focusing on the individual rather than the diagnosis.  

The short film looks at the life of Sam Stevens, a Jolt dancer with Down syndrome. 

The film grew out of a performance created by Jolt Youth in 2017 called “I am Sam which was created in response to new pre-natal testing for Down Syndrome. In countries like Iceland, this testing has resulted in 100% abortion rates for babies with Down Syndrome. 

“It is wonderful people can have choice, but the problem is the culture which is still really negative about disability,” says Lyn Cotton, the Jolt artistic director. 

“Through Sam’s life we were trying to ask those really big questions like ‘what does it mean to human?” 

The original show “I am Sam used dance, theatre and film, to portray who Sam is _from his birth and early life to the present day. Within that story we see Sam as an individual, not just as a person with Down syndrome. 

The film They Call Me Sam uses dance scenes and rehearsals from that original production, as well as behind the scenes footage and interviews with Sam’s parents, other parents and performers. 

“These dancers come through a society that has very low expectations, so we have to fight that,” says Cotton, who had hoped to first show the film in London this May. 

Jolt Dance had been invited as special guests to the 40th anniversary of Amici Dance, one of the longest running inclusive dance companies, but due to the Covid 19 virus, these celebrations have been delayed. Jolt had fundraised and crowd sourced over $10,000 to take their dancers to England and Cotton says those funds will be held until a new date for the Amici event is announced. 

In New Zealand, the film will be distributed to medical people like radiographers, midwives, nurses and doctors, to educators and trainee teachers to raise expectations, to schools and to the disability sector as a celebration of strength and being different. 

The experiences of our parents and other people within New Zealand to a Down Syndrome diagnosis continues to be negative,” says Cotton. “It focuseon all the problems that may occur. It is a culture of fear instead of expectation. It is also a culture that sees the disability as the most important factor in determining who a person is.  

“We want this film to offer another side to the story. Sam’s life is one of purpose and love,” says Cotton. 

Sam’s father Tom features heavily in the film, but unfortunately passed away recently before he could see the end product.  

In the film he points out that most of us are stressed and can only see the problems ahead of us. “But not to one of these kids. Perhaps we should be more like them,” said Tom. 

By John Pike
Where do you work?
Right here at Slaughterhaus – the graphic design company where CHAT 21 is produced.

John on cleaning duties at Lighthouse Brewery

How long have you worked here?
11 months.
How many hours each week?
6 hours.
What jobs do you do at your work?
I do the cleaning in the design studio and in Lighthouse Brewery next door.

John with his boss Dan and colleague Taylor.

How does it make you feel that you have a job?

It makes me feel good.

What do you like the most about your work?
Having a beer at Lighthouse Brewery after work on Friday and getting paid.
What don’t you really like about your work?
Cleaning the floor.
Do you have any other paid or volunteer jobs as well?
I help in the garden at Hohepa.
What would be your dream job?
Beer taster.

By Susan Foster Cohen, Director of the Christchurch Early Intervention Trust and Champion Centre  

Raising a child with Down syndrome can be a better experience for parents if they are able to share their experiences with other families going through a similar journey.  

The Champion Centre’s model of early intervention has many essential elements that reflect best practice and one of them is the deliberate bringing together of parents with the hope that it will kick-start friendships and support networks between them.  

By attending the Centre in small groups one morning a week during school terms, families not only receive individualised support for each of the children, but have frequent opportunities to meet and connect with other families/whānau  whose children are at a similar age and stage 

Perhaps the most important moment in a Champion Centre morning from this perspective is the opportunity for conversation over a cuppa and a biscuit at morning tea.   

This relaxed and necessary break from the focus on each child’s development is when parents can begin to learn each other’s stories.   

Group music is another moment deliberately designed into the model of service where parents and children can enjoy playing musically together.  Sometimes the permission for parents to play results in more rowdy behaviour from the adults than from the children! 

When it is time for children to move on to school, we hope that both the children and the parents will have formed bonds with other families that will serve them well into the future.  We encourage parents to support each other in sharing information and advocating for their children as they go through life. 

Chat 21 Editor Coen Lammers was one of the parents experiencing the benefits of that peer support when he was part the centre’s programme with his daughter Bella and wife Suzi.  

Bella and Coen recently presented to the Annual General Meeting of the Champion Centre to share their experiences and talk about the continuing value of the peer networks in their lives. 

Bella spoke about her school, her work, her sports, her dancing and her social life, where in many cases she still enjoys the same friendships she developed when she attended the Champion Centre more than 13 years ago. 

The 18-year-old still hangs out with the UPP Club Christchurch, dances at Jolt and swims against the same young men and women, she learned to crawl and walk with as a toddler. 

At that same AGM, her dad explained that the connections for the parents are also still just as strong and just as important. 

“We are lucky that the “Class of 2001” brought together a group of parents that instantly clicked, and we still see each other regularly,” said Coen. 

He said the families get together regularly for birthday parties and other key events, and have created a Christmas meal tradition where the children are not invited. 

“The interesting thing is that at the start we often talked about our children, about schools, funding or health issues, but as the years progressed, we have just become really good friends, well beyond the Down syndrome connection.” 

“That connection brought us together, but is not why we get together. Saying that, having this group of parents still provides support when we need it, an opportunity to share information or spark some inspiration if we see one of the children doing something amazing,” says Coen. 


To celebrate its 51st anniversary last July, Special Olympics International organised a host of events and activities focused on Unified Sports.

In Unified Sports, Special Olympians compete alongside and against people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics New Zealand celebrated the Special Olympics Global Day of Inclusion with an exhibition football match in Christchurch on July 21,

The New Zealand World Summer Games Unified football team took on an invitational team made up of local athletes and Christchurch City councillors on the famous cricket pitch at Hagley Oval.

The match featured on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme and Frank Walmsley explained that as a unified partner in the team, he is part of the team, and not a coach.

“We’re there to play with the team, be part of the team. We make sure that everybody’s getting passed to, keeping their heads up when they go a goal behind. Just there to support the others,” said Walmsley.

Special Olympics NZ Chief Executive Carolyn Young said that unified sport creates great opportunities for people to connect. “And we really saw that at the Christchurch match.”

“The match provided an opportunity to showcase the benefits of making connections with a broader range of people in our community and demonstrates that we are better together.”

Both teams had great fun and put in an amazing performance. At the end of the day the World Summer Games team came out on top with a 1-0 win.

If you want to see the action on Seven Sharp, please follow this link.