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Terri Mauro

What I Love About Special Olympics — and What Worries Me

By June 11, 2013

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MedalThis past weekend was a big one for my family. It was my son's first trip to our state Special Olympics, which means it was also his first time sleeping away from family. And, of course, my first time with him sleeping away from family, which brings a hovering helicopter mama like me a certain level of stress. We were around him plenty during the days at the track, but meals and sleeping and evening activities were with his group. Reports from the chaperones were all good. Reports from his fellow athletes tended to be about his eating huge amounts of food or being fresh with them (many of his teammates are closer to my age than his, and like everybody else in the dang world think I should give him a talking-to). All in all, though, it was a successful first outing, with 4th- and 6th-place medals to show for his brave attempts.

Our experience with Special Olympics before this weekend has been on the local level, where there's not a huge amount of participation and the events are somewhat loosely organized. So it was fun to have a more big-time Special Olympics experience (even though the opening ceremonies were sadly rained out) and witness the really massive volunteer effort that goes into getting these things running and making it a positive time for everyone. It's great to be in a place where everybody's happy to see your kid, where his bobbing and flapping don't stand out in the crowd, where companies make donations and set up booths to embrace a special-needs community instead of shutting doors against them. It's an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I can only imagine the degree it's going to rise to when my state of New Jersey hosts the national games next year. I don't think my son will be at the level to compete nationally by then, but my friend and I are already talking about volunteering. It's something you want to be a part of, whichever way you can.

And yet ... you know, as someone who talks and writes and argues in favor of inclusion quite a bit these days, it's hard to overlook the fact that Special Olympics is a profoundly uninclusive experience. The people without disabilities were there to supervise -- cheerfully, lovingly, in the most positive and respectful way possible -- the people with disabilities. The place was teeming with high-school students, college students, Boy Scouts, people who should, in a perfect inclusive society, be my son's peers, but there was really no coming together as equals. I saw every sign that those bright-eyed girls in volunteer T-shirts saw my son as a sweetie, a young man deserving of respect, a human being of value, but a "peer"? Not so much, I think; volunteers are, on the most basic level, playing a caregiver role, even for people their own age, even for people their parents' age. It didn't feel bad there down on the ground; indeed, it felt great to see so many young people volunteering for this event, and interacting so warmly with the athletes. Philosophically, though, it's problematic, isn't it?

I've been reading a lot from parents of kids with special needs lately stating that our kids don't need or want pity -- and though the spirit of Special Olympics is absolutely one of empowerment, support, and celebration, I would guess that for some, it still falls on the wrong side of the line, of making people with disabilities a source of inspiration and service credits. In a time when no one wanted to see people with disabilities at all, when it was unthinkable that individuals with intellectual disabilities could do anything but rot away somewhere out of town, Special Olympics was a beacon toward a new world of acceptance and respect and ability. Now that we're moving toward that world, and trying to force our way farther and farther, it's at risk, I think, of being a good thing trampled on the way to a greater good that's not quite in place yet.†Special Olympics does have a†Unified Sports program, in which disabled and non-disabled athletes play together, and that may be the way of the future. But I also wonder whether there's something of value to our children in gathering with young and older people like themselves that we are too eager to jetison because, as parents without disabilities, it is not of value to us.

What's your experience been with Special Olympics? Do you think it works as is, or needs to change in a more inclusive society? Do you worry about good programs being lost in the push for a greater but still elusive good? Share your thoughts in the comments.

June 12, 2013 at 12:14 am
(1) Mary Ann Merchen says:

I found your article interesting because I had to go to a special school since I was born in the 50ís. Even now that I am 56, I sometimes think I was fortunate to go to the Illinois Childrenís Hospital School since I really think I had a better education there than I would have gotten in a public school. This feeling is due to the fact that I didnít feel any different from the other students who had all types of handicaps. As a result, most of my true personality could develop because I didnít wary about my drooling or taking too long to answer a question that my teacher asked. Yet, I really like the idea of inclusion since it teaches all people that we are more alike than different.

June 24, 2013 at 2:47 am
(2) bforaker says:

I know this will be a controversial thing to say but I think the current paradigm of SO is dated and needs to be re-envisioned. My son (who is 13 and has Down Syndrome) had his first independent experience with SO in bowling this past fall and it was a disaster. The kids were told to stay in their lane, no mingling with other SO kids in the lane next door, could not use the snack bar like the typical kids and were to bowl over and over with no breaks for two straight hours. My son was bored to death! The college aged helpers stood off to the side with zero interaction with the kids, more like watching someone at the zoo. It had a very dated and institutionalized vibe. Needless to say, we didn’t participate that long. My son currently swims on an inclusive swim team…yes, they took him when he could not swim at all. He has performed in countless performances that are are inclusive. He’s never been pushed to the side in any of these activities or overlooked. With bowling, Patrick was “lost” meaning they couldn’t find him when my husband came to pick him up!!! He’s never been lost in an inclusive activity. I met with the head of the bowling trying to brainstorm ways to update the activity for the kids coming in who are more experienced with a fully inclusive setting — she didn’t seem very interested and to my knowledge no changes have been made. If SO doesn’t adapt, they risk becoming irrelevant and that would be a shame for such a visionary/ground breaking organization.

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