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Circus WA’s All-Abilities troop helps teenagers with disabilities learn to fly

When Olivia Riley was seven years old, she underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor that caused her to lose her balance, flexibility and coordination. But in the air on the trapeze, she feels completely at ease.

Olivia, 14, lives with ataxia, a movement disorder caused by brain problems.

As an avid gymnast and dancer, Olivia had a hard time learning to live with the condition.

“I love performing all the time, I love just moving every second of the day,” she said.

“[But] I can’t do as many things as I would like, like jumping or racing… I can’t go to acrobatics and do backbends, splits or wheels because I’ll hurt myself.

“I need to learn all these things again.”

A year ago, Olivia joined Circus WA of All Capabilities in Fremantle, a circus program that educates children with physical and mental disabilities.

Olivia Riley sits on a gym mat
Olivia is already one of the stars of the circus.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

She said it changed her life.

“When I’m at school, I sit in a chair most of the day and look down and my back starts to hurt,” she said.

“So it’s good to just let go of all my worries and stress and be a little flexible and feel like I can do some of the things that my friends do.”

Now the teenager from Perth is one of the stars of the squad.

She recently performed the trapeze routine in front of a crowd along with two regular Circus WA youth artists.

“I didn’t think I would do it, but I love it,” Olivia said.

“I did the trapeze and didn’t get nervous. I even forgot the audience was there because I was so engrossed just smiling and remembering what I had to do.”

Universal WA circus performers bow on stage
Dozens of young people have gone through the All-Abilities Circus Circus WA program.(Supplied: Dan McBride)

“Many people couldn’t do it”

Circus WA Artistic Director Jo Smith said she was amazed at how far Olivia had come.

“She’s shaking a lot, she’s pretty unsteady on her feet, but we get her up in the air and she gains strength and floats and flies,” she said.

“There is one move she does while sitting on the trapeze facing another performer and she lets go of the trapeze, leans back, and then rises again.

“We can spend years working with people of all abilities, trying to give them the muscle power to do it, and this young woman does it with ease.”

A woman stands in front of a wall.
Artistic director of Circus WA Joe Smith says that the purpose of the squad is not therapy, but teaching young people the art of the circus.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

The All Abilities program has been in operation since 2018 and has trained dozens of teenagers living with a variety of disabilities, including children with Down syndrome, acquired brain injuries and cystic fibrosis.

Ms. Smith said the program was not a place for therapy, but a place to train a new generation of performers.

“We are very clear that we are not doing circus therapy – we are doing circus,” Ms. Smith said.

“There is no reason why anyone who has the desire and passion to become a circus performer could not do it.”

A circus squad of all abilities in Fremantle.
The All-Abilities Circus helps break down barriers for young people with disabilities.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

Training ground for the Paralympic Games

Simon Mead is the CEO of Rebound WA, which helps people with disabilities be active.

Many of its members have participated in the Paralympic Games.

Mr Meade said he was pleased to see more opportunities open up for young people with disabilities in Australia.

“Sixty years ago, the only option for people with disabilities to be active was formal sport, which became the Paralympic Games,” he said.

“Now it’s… where people can take an active part, which is more artistic and doesn’t have to keep score,” he said.

He said programs like the circus of all abilities paved the way for a better future.

“I think [final] the phase when all barriers are reduced and people can choose any level of activity.

“We’re probably still way off the mark — both the amount of equipment people need and the attitude people need to overcome, but we’re all working on it.

“It’s fantastic that everyone is moving in the right direction.”

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