Talking acceptance, fame and a desire to help others, Special Olympics GB athlete Jess Hiles shares her incredible story
Today is International Day of Persons with a Disability – a day introduced by the United Nations to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all corners of society and to increase awareness of persons with disabilities in every aspect of life.
All too often, people with intellectual disabilities are underestimated and, in many cases, written off by society. So, who better to prove people wrong than Jess Hiles, a Special Olympics GB athlete from Redditch. Jess is a fantastic double gold medal winning athlete and advocate of Special Olympics GB. Like many of our athletes, Jess has achieved many incredible things in her life and has an unstoppable desire to help and support others in any way she can.
Our athletes never cease to amaze us. The continued drive to overcome challenges they face because of their disabilities are shining examples of the determination, courage and resilience our athletes display on a daily basis.
Like so many of our athletes, Jess did not have the easiest childhood. Frequently bullied at school, Jess also found it incredibly difficult to make friends and was very aware she looked different to others. Jess explains: “I used to wear baseball caps because people used to stare at me. At my first school I didn’t have many friends, I felt scared and anxious, and I was bullied a lot when I was out and about because I look different. It was scary.”
Happily, fast forward to Jess’ present day life and both Jess and her Mum Jo have so much to be proud of. Jess’ life changed after her school years with the introduction to Special Olympics GB serving as a wonderful catalyst for Jess to thrive.
Jess is an extremely proud member of Special Olympics Redditch where she plays Boccia each week. She describes being part of Special Olympics GB as being with, “family” and through her participation in training and competing, Jess has been able to make friends, who she missed terribly during lockdown.
For Jess, her involvement in Special Olympics GB, has been so much more than just winning medals. She explains: “It helped my confidence and being proud and it keeps me fit. It helps me to keep healthy, I do a lot of walking now with Special Olympics. My coach said yesterday that they were proud of me because they saw me walking.”
A confidence which has helped Jess achieve many things in her life. As Jess’ Mum Jo says: “Jess is a truly inspirational person.” From being a published author, to learning and teaching sign language, to public speaking in schools about her experiences and being an integral part of the people’s parliament advocating for societal changes for people with disabilities, Jess really has overcome so many obstacles to be an incredible role model for so many people – including her own Mum.
As Jess’ Mum Jo explains: “If you could see Jess stand up in front of 200 people in a school. It’s been an eye opener for me. Jess always says to the children that it’s ok to be different. That we are all the same on the inside. Jess has this ability, people just come and chat to Jess. It’s her big thing.”
Jess continues: “I said to one boy that I live on my own, and he was like ‘what?’ We think he had autism and he then said, ‘one day I want to do that.’ I was like yes!”
“And several times we have been in schools and have had messages from Mums, from kids who have met Jess, who have connections with disabilities that aren’t necessarily seen, and Jess encourages them. We found out that one boy had a father in a wheelchair,” “explains Jo.
“He was the carer of his Dad, a young carer,” adds Jess. “I asked him if he wanted a hug and he said he needed a big hug. He was frightened and the staff didn’t know about the father. One girl had a disabled sister and they started to talk about it.”
Adds Jo: “It’s great because people like Jess can teach us that we can accept anyone. Whatever your ability or disability or looks, it doesn’t matter. We have such a close family, and I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t change Jess for the world.”
Jess and her Mum are very close. Seeing Jess struggle to fit in throughout her childhood was extremely tough for Jo. Although seeing Jess come through her struggles and succeed in more ways than she could imagine is what makes their bond so special. Jo explains: “Life has been tough and there are times where I would like to crawl in a corner and not come out. But I look at my daughter. Life’s too short not to just keep on trying and to keep on doing what you want to do. To watch Special Olympics is just a joy and long may it carry on. Because I can’t thank Jess enough for what she has given me.”
Giving back is a big theme for both mother and daughter, and they discovered early on that by working together they could help even more people overcome similar challenges to Jess.
The idea of writing and publishing books initially started with Jo who had always wanted to write a children’s book about Jess. With a passion for inclusion and creating societal change these books were each set around a certain theme that symbolised Jess’s incredible but challenging journey, with the first being about bullying.
One book turned into two books and two quickly into four which have gone on to help, educate and inform so many people that having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of. With the main character being a symbolic version of Jess, Jo wanted the main purpose of the books to highlight the importance of inclusion.
Having achieved so much throughout her life it’s hard to believe that not more people know of Jess and her success. However, all that changed recently when Jess and Jo both appeared on the popular BBC TV show, The Repair Shop, when they asked Jay Blades and team to help repair and restore Jess’ treasured dolls which her late grandmother gave to her as a child.
Jess proved to be big hit on the show and brought the nation to tears when she handed over her treasured dolls to the team for their much-needed repairs. It was the first time in 31 years she had been apart from them. And when she saw what The Repair Shop team had done, both Jess and her Mum were delighted with the results. Jess said she was: “gobsmacked” when she saw the dolls for the first time!
Since the show has gone out, Jess has loved her new-found fame. Jess has been recognised in the street – always with a comment about Jay’s flat cap after she wore a similar hat during her appearance. “Everyone keeps coming up to me saying they saw me,” explains Jess. “People keep wanting to take pictures with me. People talk to me about it now, people didn’t know that I did Special Olympics.”
So, what does the future hold for Jess? Determined as ever, Jess has much more to achieve inside of Special Olympics, but she’s also got some new ideas on the go too. Jess has a dream to be an interpreter to help people in hospital who are unable to communicate. Jess is also very keen to work with animals and will be setting some incredible fundraising challenges to keep up with the astonishing £5,000 she has raised over the past five years. Whatever Jess sets her mind to we are certain she will be successful.
And to all people who like Jess have struggled to find their place in the world, Jess has a powerful message: “Carry on and achieve your goals like I have with Special Olympics. Never give up and even if it’s a little goal you should still go for it.”
Thank you Jess and we wish you all the best in your future!