Recently, Special Olympics celebrated the anniversary of their 1976 event. This is a picture of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and a young competitor and winner from back then posted on the Special Olympics site on August 22.
As a young college student, almost ready to graduate with a degree in special education, I volunteered in the festivities that brought the 1976 International Special Olympics to Central Michigan University. The event touched me deeply. Students with disabilities competed, but the focus was far from the disability. College students and members of the community tallied points, led the competitors to events. They cheered loudly—just like any other sports activity. I admired the competitors for accomplishing feats I would never be able to do! And yes—if you were lucky, you had the honor of hugging the winners and placing ribbons around their neck. Anyone who participates or assists with Special Olympics likens the event to a spiritual experience.
With the inclusion movement, many have been critical of Special Olympics. The organization has been accused of segregating students and of greater prejudice. President Obama didn’t help matters any in 2009, when on Jay Leno, he likened his low bowling score to “Special Olympics or something.” Presidents are human. Sometimes they say the wrong thing. The White House apologized.
It seems to me, if a student with disabilities plays basketball and can make the regular team then they should, by all means, be encouraged to play on the regular team. Just like if a student with disabilities can keep up with regular classwork, even with some assistance, then they should, by all means, be in regular classes. But getting rid of Special Olympics is similar to the elimination of special education. There are serious questions as to whether these students will be lost in the crowd/class.
If we didn’t have Special Olympics, many students with disabilities would never get to play any sports. There will always be those who won’t be able to win a spot on a regular team due to their disabilities, but they might like to compete and play the game anyway. And there will always be students who might not be able to pass standards but who are still capable of many great accomplishments.
Young people with disabilities are more segregated when they are set up to fail—when they are forced to take high-stakes tests beyond their ability—or when they don’t get to play any sports because there are no opportunities to do so.
The Special Olympics motto is “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I would add, I very much like the word “special” more than the word “common.”