A tough road for Kenny: In the face of adversity, he doesn’t see his disability as a challenge

January 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Ken Gabour goes through his regular workout at Richmond's Water Mainia training facility where, he works out four days a week.

Ken Gabour goes through his regular workout at Richmond's Water Mainia training facility where, he works out four days a week. (Kirk Darbyshire photo)

Ken Gabour grimaces slightly as he lifts the dumbbell at Richmond’s Water Mania training facility. He then curls it up to his chest just as he’s done time and time again during his 20-year athletic career.

The winner of more than 30 B.C. Special Olympic medals has competed in nearly every sport, reaching the pinnacle in figure skating in 1996 by winning the World Special Olympic gold medal. Listening to Gabour tell the story, you’ll never hear the word special, just Olympic.

Gabour was born with Down Syndrome, Sept. 3, 1972 in Vancouver General Hospital. Down Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome, resulting in a flat face and mental retardation.
He was also born partially deaf and with a hole in his heart that may have required open-heart surgery to fix. By the time he turned one, the hole had grown over and his life – growing up in a typical suburban Richmond family – could begin.

“Ken has never seen himself as different,” said Gabour’s mother, Dorothy, “and to tell you the truth, he doesn’t even like to hang out with other handicapped people.”

What he does like to do is work out, hang out with friends and family, volunteer with many community programs, play all types of sports. And work at his long-time job with McDonald’s.

Gabour lives a full and rewarding life with his mother in a basement suite in Richmond, but it wasn’t always so easy. There was very little help for B.C. parents of children with developmental delays prior to the establishment of the Infant Development Program in 1972.

“We were really lucky,” Gabour’s mother said. “When Ken was born, it was obvious he was going to be delayed, and we were fortunate enough to have great timing. Ken was the first baby accepted into the province’s new Infant Development Program.”

Mark Walsner has turned his job as a one-to-one life skills worker into a life-long friendship with Ken Gabour. (Kirk Darbyshire photo)

Mark Walsner has turned his job as a one-to-one life skills worker into a life-long friendship with Ken Gabour. (Kirk Darbyshire photo)

Dorothy credits the program with allowing Ken to integrate into the community successfully and progress through elementary school without falling behind. During his time with the IDP, he improved his speech, coordination, and muscle strength, ensuring he would be ready to attend school with other kids his age. The program helps children up to the age of three, who have – or are at risk of having – developmental delays due to biological or psychological issues. Since Gabour was accepted, and helped by the IDP, the program has helped more than 65,000 children in the province. About 61 B.C. children with Down Syndrome are referred to the program every year.

Gabour’s elder sister Colleen Wright smirks slightly as she recalls growing up with him. It was not easy. “It was hard growing up with him,” Wright said. “Despite his disability, he was always the one who accomplished everything and had everyone’s attention. As simply Ken’s older sister, I just kind of got pushed to the side a lot.”

Gabour graduated from Richmond Senior Secondary School in 1990 before going to Kwantlen College for two years, graduating with a diploma from the restaurant-services program. He turned that diploma into a career that he wouldn’t change for the world. Since graduating from Kwantlen, Gabour has worked at McDonald’s, performing various duties from cooking to cleaning, and assisting customer-service representatives with the taking and filling of orders.

When he’s not working, Gabour can be found training for or competing in one of the many sports he enjoys. He has won medals in both the British Columbia Special Olympics and World Special Olympics in many sports, including floor hockey, swimming, cross-country skiing, softball. The sport he excelled at more than any other is figure skating.

“At an early age Ken set goals for himself, and when he puts his mind to something he wants, there is nothing that can hold him back,” said his mother. “I remember one time when he had won a bronze medal in swimming and he just refused to take it. He had become so used to winning gold that anything less just wasn’t good enough.”

Ken’s mom, who lost her husband to lung cancer 16 years ago, credits one of the only remaining male influences in his life for much of his success.

Mark Walsner is a one-to-one life-skills worker with the Mainstream Association for Proactive Community Living, and has worked with Gabour for 17 years. He specializes in assisting people with mental handicaps to better understand the community they live in and feel more comfortable with their day-to-day activities.

“We work together to try to reach goals that Ken has set out for himself,” said Walsner, who spends 12 hours a week working closely with him. They do many activities together, such as going to the gym, swimming, watching movies and going to the beach in the summer.

“Over the time I’ve worked with Ken the biggest change I’ve seen in him is in the way he carries himself,” said Walsner. “The increase in his self-confidence and self-esteem is what has allowed him to get to where he is today, and accomplish all the things he has both in sport and life.”

Walsner’s work has turned into friendship. He and his girlfriend now regularly attend gatherings with Gabour and his family.

Most people with Down Syndrome will never live alone. If something were to happen to Gabour’s mother, he would live in a government-funded group home or with another family member. His sister said she is more than willing to take him in, if that time should come.

“The hardest thing for Ken is change,” said his mother. “He really doesn’t adapt well when things in his life are different then he’s used to.”

His sister lives in Richmond, so the community that he has spent his entire life growing up in is most likely where he will spend the rest of his life.

“I like Richmond,” said Gabour. “I got my workout, I got my work, and my mom is here.”

That’s his world.