Last month, Max Elliott started work experience at the Ruggers restaurant attached to the Brothers Rugby Union club in Brisbane. Max will be 17 in April and has spent a fair deal of teenage years at the club. He knows the club pretty well: it’s down the hill from his home and he’s played a lot of rugby there. But it’s not rugby as many players know it and Max is not your average teenager.
Max Elliot at Brothers Rugby Union club
“We’d always been open with everyone about Max’s situation,’’ Megan says. “We met the next person and they’d suggest something else or someone else to talk to. It wasn’t a straight line. Sometimes it was one step forward, two steps back. But we were always trying to move forward, to get some momentum.’’
Settling on what the modified rules themselves was typical of the journey. Not only were there changes to the size of the playing field and the balls, there also needed to be changes to tackling, a fundamental part of rugby. Max, and many who have the same condition, are highly sensory and touching can be difficult for them. So how do you get around that? One thing became clear – Max wasn’t keen on throwing the ball around with grown-ups. Put a teenager in to the mix and suddenly Max wanted to play. Out of this came the PlayerMentor model that puts an able-bodied person alongside the player who has learning and perceptual disabilities. GingerCloud provides the training for the mentors to understand what’s required in their new role and they are paired with an age-appropriate player. The unintended upside of the mentor side of the GingerCloud program is that some Brisbane employers have told Megan that when they see job applicants include ‘GingerCloud mentor’ on their resume, they hire them because it is evidence of the job seeker’s maturity and emotional intelligence.
The question for Megan has always been trying to find ways to build capacity for social inclusion. The GingerCloud modified rules model is suitable for boys, girls and young adults but it has evolved in response to, initially Max’s circumstance, and the recognition that there were many just like him. Whilst government may direct communities to be more inclusive, authentic inclusion only happens organically. “You can’t make policy for inclusion,’’ Megan says. “It happens when people create a connection and you get a true ripple effect.’’ Or to put it another way: “Unless we normalize disability, we cannot get true inclusivity.’’
Max working at Ruggers restaurant attached to the BRUC
Other sporting codes have approached GingerCloud with a view towards developing a version of modified rules for their own game. That might happen, or it could even be adapted to teaching other activities like music. For the time being, the foundation is trying to raise funds to continue the program’s expansion. There has been some Federal government support and the arrival of the NDIS has also added another layer of help. By 2022, its forecast that there will be more than 500 Modified Rugby Program (MRP) players down the east coast of Australia.
Closer to home, Max will spend his work experience doing two things he loves, according to him mum - cooking and eating. Max will learn how to make his favourite food – pizza- prepare other people’s food and set the restaurant tables for lunches and dinners. “Max can be anywhere at the club and be safe and happy,’’ Megan says. Its sounds like a relief but it is also so much more than that.