Living the passion of a lifetime, playing for Wakefield Trinity. Changing the course of his lifetime, by receiving specialist support that led to an autism diagnosis. For Ben Gomersall, the unique collaboration between Community Integrated Care – one of the UK’s most successful social care charities – and the sport of rugby league has been transformative.
Ben, 45, is a proud participant in the Community Integrated Care Learning Disability Super League. This unique programme, which was launched by the charity in partnership with the Rugby Football League and Super League in 2019, gives people who need support in their daily lives the platform to play an adapted version of the game and access off-field support from the charity too.
Not only has Ben been able to live out his dream of playing for a professional rugby league club, and build a new and lasting friendship group, but his participation led to an autism diagnosis that allows him to live with greater freedom and happiness.
Ben explained: “Who would have thought this would all come from going down to a Learning Disability Super League training session and just giving it a go? I’ve now developed so many skills, experienced things many people will never do and have a better understanding of myself which should help me to stay as independent as possible in the future.
“My life has completely changed.”
The groundbreaking partnership between Community Integrated Care and rugby league means that many players, like Ben, have a unique pathway to progress from participating in the sport they love to accessing opportunities to develop other areas of their life too. For Ben, being part of a pioneering mentoring and volunteering programme created by the charity with Sport England and the Rugby League World Cup 2021 has not only supported new passions and skills – media, photography, and self-advocacy to name just a few – but also given him new insights into his own life.
As a result of the rugby league programmes that Ben has been involved in, he has been able to spend more time with other people who require support in his daily life and work with the expert team at Community Integrated Care.
This saw Ben, with the support of charity, identify traits that might indicate that he is autistic. With the encouragement and support of the charity, Ben raised this at a GP consultation and went on to receive an autism spectrum diagnosis, aged 45. It is hard to understate how profoundly important this moment was. This important insight now gives him access to greater support and understanding of how to live a life of greater independence and happiness.
Now, when asked to describe what the Community Integrated Care Learning Disability Super League means to him, he responds: “Friendship. Acceptance. Self-belief.”
Friendship is certainly integral for life-long Featherstone Rovers fan Ben – because it has ensured he has remained loyal to Trinity after starting his LDSL journey at his boyhood club’s big rivals.
Ben said: “Featherstone didn’t have an LDSL team back when I started playing for Wakefield. I settled in quickly and made a good bond with the coaches and other players. They’re such an incredible group of characters with their own unique personality traits. I love to make my teammates laugh as I tell good jokes – nobody believes me when I say that, but I do!
“Everybody is so diverse but the same and they know me so well. That’s one of the things I love about playing. I don’t feel like I could play for another LDSL team now, even my team!”
Launched back in 2019, the LDSL aims to promote the development of skills, confidence, and positive experiences of its players, and make a major statement about social inclusion. This programme, which is purpose designed for people who have learning disabilities or autism and require support in their daily lives, is the first ever example of a professional sports league sharing its brand with a learning disability sports project.
Ben is just one of more than 300 people who have been positively impacted by playing in the Community Integrated Cre Learning Disability Super League. He is enthusiastic about encouraging others to try it.
“Without any hesitation at all I would say do it, because if you let it, it can change your life,” Ben said. “People will be nervous – I was, I was worried about whether I’d be able to play. But just take the chance and do it because you will surprise yourself.
“Everybody is different, but nobody judges. We’re a team and a group of friends which is massive.”
As for a personal highlight of his time in LDSL? Ben responded: “Playing at Magic Weekend and scoring a try at St James’ Park was just incredible.
“I’ve been a rugby league supporter at Featherstone since the days of Martin Pearson and Ikram Butt, but I never thought I’d get the chance to play. Now I’ve played in front of a record-breaking crowd, at one of the most iconic stadiums in this country. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
This confidence gained from these experiences has cascaded into many other areas of his life. “Playing in the LDSL gave me the confidence to pursue more opportunities, while developing my independence and interests, such as joining a media skills club with Community Integrated Care,” he said.
“With support from Community Integrated Care, I spoke about my volunteering journey to thousands on stage at the Super League Grand Final 2021, met with the Sky Sports Rugby League on air team, and wrote numerous published matchday reports across the Rugby League World Cup.”
As a member of the voluntary Advisory Group, Ben became an advocate for inclusion. His lived experiences saw him champion and support the RLWC2021 carrying a sentiment of kindness and respect in its public communications.
“I was so proud knowing that my experiences would advise the RLWC2021 tournament organisers on ways to make the international event more accessible and inclusive for all,” he said.
Article written by Gareth Walker