Be a Fan
You see that on Special Olympics literature, websites, and paraphernalia. More than a mere slogan, Be a Fan is part of a belief system that values people with intellectual disability for their gifts and talents, their abilities and humanity.
I am a Special Olympics volunteer. Like approximately 550,000 people in the United States and 850,000 internationally (Andrea Cahn, personal communication, October 14, 2010), I give a small bit of my time, talent, and treasure to Special Olympics as Senior Advisor to the Chairman and CEO. No, I am not out there coaching or training athletes or refereeing events, that is just not something where I have anything to offer. I am participating in discussions, reviewing or drafting the occasional document, and responding to ideas and issues impacting the inclusion and full citizenship of people with intellectual disability, something I have been doing for most of my adult life. I hope my very small contribution to Special Olympics is helping the movement towards the goals of full citizenship, community membership, and respect for all people with intellectual disability.
Movements and organizations, like people, grow and change. I am writing this article because, as the world for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities continues to change and evolve, I think those who have advocated for community inclusion and participation have an ally, one we have failed to recognize, and with gifts and talents we have ignored, one we need to take seriously, and one who many of us shunned in the past. Special Olympics is a program we need now perhaps more than ever.
How Can You Discriminate Against Someone You Respect?
From 1987–1993, I was the State Developmental Disabilities Director in Pennsylvania. This was during the time when we were working on closing Pennhurst, among other efforts. Our focus was on building community capacity to support all people in inclusive environments as we then understood that term. Our understanding today is different than it was then. I remember distinctly a meeting with the state director of Special Olympics; she wanted to enlist me and my office in their efforts. I rather rudely dismissed her, saying that I, and we, wanted no part in such a segregated undertaking. In hindsight, maybe a different approach would have gotten us further along the path to inclusion, acceptance, and respect.
Wolfensberger (1995) broached this subject more than 15 years ago. He offered a critique of some aspects of Special Olympics but also spoke to its positive aspects: “There are many problems with Special Olympics, but social segregation is not a big one” (p. 129). He also spoke about events taking place in normative settings, with extensive interaction of Special Olympics athletes, coaches, and volunteers who do not have a disability. He noted that participating in sports was, in and of itself, a normative activity in American society, “not in the sense that retarded athletes compete against non-retarded ones” (Wolfensberger, 1995, p. 128), which is where, with the expansion of Unified Sports®, a rapidly growing (over 325,000 athletes) and vibrant part of Special Olympics, precisely that happens. As inclusion in special education has struggled, and segregated work opportunities have grown (Butterworth, Smith, Cohen Hall, Miliore, & Winsor, 2010), athletes with and without disabilities are training and competing together across the globe in Unified Sports®, a program that Special Olympics hopes to develop significantly worldwide. Besides offering sports and competition, Unified Sports® is an opportunity for inclusion and participation on a massive scale, in a valued activity. In a somewhat critical published review of Special Olympics, Orelove, Wehman, and Wood (1982, p. 328) called for such an approach to make Special Olympics less segregated. In an update of that review a decade later, Block and Moon (1992) documented progress and offered suggestions for improvement.
The ultimate goal of Special Olympics is to help persons with intellectual disability participate as productive and respected members of society at large by offering them a fair opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and talents through sports training and competition and by increasing the public's awareness of their capabilities and needs. (Shriver, 2010b)
Special Olympics Chairman and CEO, Timothy Shriver, views Special Olympics as an organization that enhances community building and creates reciprocity, a place where people with intellectual disability both benefit directly from the sports training and competition as well as being a place for communities to come together in a positive endeavor. He believes that creating value for people with intellectual disability, their communities, and those who participate in Special Olympics is an active and desired outcome of the movement's work. Shriver views sports as a catalyst for change (Timothy Shriver, personal communication, November 18, 2010).
Project UNIFY is an effort by Special Olympics to “activate young people around the country in an effort to develop school communities where all young people are agents of change, fostering respect, dignity, and advocacy for people with intellectual disability by utilizing the programs and initiatives of Special Olympics” (Cahn, n.d.). As of November 2010, Project Unify was in 1,700 schools, in 45 states with a projected increase of 800. I attended the Education/Youth Leadership Forum in Lincoln, Nebraska, in June 2010, that was held in conjunction with the U.S. Special Olympics games. I witnessed some of these young leaders, people with and without disabilities, participate passionately in discussions about inclusion for people with disabilities. These young people were not just physically present; what I witnessed was respect, reciprocity, and an affirmation that all people have things to give. The discussion about how to improve schools and education was remarkable, both for the passion the young leaders demonstrated for the topic and how leaders from two dozen national organizations focused on community building and school improvement were engaged in the conversation.
Athlete Leadership and Self-Advocacy
The self-advocacy movement is growing stronger daily around the world. Special Olympics accepts and nurtures leadership on the part of athletes through its Athletes for Outreach program and its Global Ambassadors program. Much like independent self-advocacy programs, these programs train people to represent the organization to the public, do public speaking, and participate in self-governance, all aspects of full citizenship and a sign of being respected by Special Olympics.
As Shriver (2010a) noted:
We need to get even more serious about sharing the gifts of our athletes with the world. To do so, we need to fight harder to get attention for our story while also confronting the most persistent and stubborn prejudice against our athletes. That prejudice rears its ugly head in painful realities—institutions still looming, employment denied, inclusive education denied, health care denied, and humiliation like the use of the word retard—a slur in any language.
Imagine the power of that message delivered in the context of an organization promoting sports and, increasingly, activities that include people with and without disabilities—and doing it surrounded by not only people with intellectual disability in positions of leadership, but by world famous athletes, such as board member Michelle Kwan, an Olympic figure skater, or Donna de Varona, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming; or with board members ranging from the Chairman and CEO of The Coca Cola Company, Muhtar Kent, to David Braddock, Executive Director of The Coleman Institute and a former American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) president; or Loretta Claiborne, a Special Olympics athlete about whom a movie was made. Space constraints limit me from highlighting the depth of this organization's leadership.
In the quote above, Shriver (2010a) disparaged those who would use the insulting term retard. Most readers of this journal would agree that changing the terminology from mental retardation to intellectual disability, which AAIDD did in 2007, was an important step. Championed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Rosa's Law, Pub. L. 111-256, was signed by President Obama on October 6, 2010. In response to continued incidents of name calling and use of the word retard by prominent actors, entertainers, and political and sports figures, Special Olympics created The R Word Campaign (n.d.) to “promote Acceptance, Passion, Respect, Unity, [and] Humanity.” Again, stars of the entertainment world were enlisted, young people with and without disabilities were and are engaged, and almost 221,000 people have signed the “R Word Pledge.” Social media were utilized and the campaign remains ongoing, with a focus of March of each year for major efforts. 221,000 people! Where else can the movement towards respect, participation, and reciprocity garner such support?
Many individuals have been concerned about both the health status and health care available for people with intellectual disability living in the community. Special Olympics has taken action, engaging volunteer health practitioners in extensive efforts at screening, provision of care, and training of practitioners. The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program is a part of Special Olympics that calls itself the largest Global Public Health Program for people with intellectual disability (Hejlik, n.d.). Although Special Olympics views Healthy Athletes to be integrally related to sports, it is indeed much more than that. It is also a vehicle for exposing healthcare professionals from medicine, dentistry, optometry, and other disciplines to people with intellectual disability, to see that they are just people who can benefit from the talent and time healthcare practitioners offer, just as other people in need of healthcare benefit. Shriver (2010b) noted: “We have hosted over one million health screenings in more than 100 countries, trained almost 80,000 healthcare professionals, and distributed more than 70,000 pairs of glasses.” From small beginnings, through the efforts of Steve Perlman, a dentist in suburban Boston, Special Olympics has brought attention and focus to the issue of the health status and health care of people with intellectual disability, both in the United States and internationally, in a way no other organization could. The clout and star power of Special Olympics helped convince Surgeon General David Satcher (2002) to host the first Surgeon General's conference on what was then called mental retardation. The result was the publication of Closing the Gap, a focus on health disparities for people with intellectual disability. That focus continues in the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program.
As the approach to services and supports for people with intellectual disability has changed, Special Olympics has changed as well. Sometimes in concert with the field, sometimes by itself, sometimes leading, and sometimes lagging behind a bit, the sum of their efforts, some of them highlighted here, make one thing clear: Special Olympics has moved forward, embracing new ideas and promoting the value of people with intellectual disability. Their leadership, presence, and positive contributions are a major force towards bettering the lives of people with intellectual disability worldwide. In the coming years we need to find more opportunities, as a field, to work together so that AAIDD's mission to “promote(s) progressive policies, sound research, effective practices, and universal human rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” (www.aaidd.org) can be a reality for all people with intellectual disability.
For all the reasons cited above, Be a Fan. I am.
Steven M. Eidelman, MSW (E-mail: email@example.com), The H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership, College of Education and Human Development, and The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, University of Delaware, 312 Alison Hall W., Newark, DE 19716; and Executive Director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, 1133 19th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.