This article was written by Allison Breedlove of The Arc of North Carolina.
Everyone has heard of the Special Olympics. The 43 year-old program allows nearly 4 million athletes in more than 170 countries to participate in competitive Olympic-style games. Despite its worldwide popularity, some in the disability community allege that the program promotes paternalism, negative stereotypes, and the segregation of people with I/DD in recreational settings.
In the early 1960s, Eunice Shriver, sister of President Kennedy, created the Special Olympics after she observed that many people with I/DD were treated unfairly and were not participating in recreational sports. Her sister, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability and played sports with Eunice as a child. Eunice’s dream of having recreational sports for athletes with I/DD materialized in 1962. She held a summer camp for people with IDD in her backyard and called it ‘Camp Shriver.’ The Special Olympics subsequently exploded in popularity. By 1968, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in Chicago. In 2011, over 7,000 athletes from 170 countries participated in the Special Olympics World Summer Games. The Special Olympics has nearly 100 programs in North Carolina alone.
Promoting Self-Worth and Health of Athletes
Many Special Olympic athletes join because there are few other opportunities for people with I/DD in sports. Perhaps the Special Olympics’ biggest draw is its proven record of promoting a sense of self-worth with their athletes.
Many athletes stay involved with the Special Olympics for as long as twenty years. Meaningful, long-term relationships are sometimes hard to come by for people with I/DD. The friendly atmosphere and stability of the Special Olympics provides important social bonds between athletes, volunteers and families.
The Special Olympics takes the physical health of its competitors very seriously. As a condition of participating, each athlete must undergo physical examinations before competing. Sadly, these examinations, and other health screenings, have revealed severe but often preventable health conditions in many of its athletes, conditions also prevalent in people with I/DD worldwide.
Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics initiative in 1997, providing free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education to over 1.2 million Special Olympians. Statistics from their screenings reveal startling health disparities. They reveal that 39% of Special Olympians have obvious untreated tooth decay; 28.7% have missing teeth; 55.4% have gait abnormalities; 25.9% fail hearing tests; 19.6% have low bone density; and 16.4% have eye disease. People with I/DD have 40% greater risk of acquiring secondary health conditions than the general population.
Over 100,000 health care professionals have been trained by the Special Olympics to treat people with intellectual disabilities and help offset these health disparities through the Healthy Athletes initiative.
Concerns with Paternalism and Negative Stereotypes
While the Special Olympics’ health programs are very popular, not everyone is pleased with their sports program. Some former participants believe the games segregate people with I/DD. They cite the lack of participation by people with I/DD as coaches, volunteers and organizers. They claim Special Olympics perpetuates the idea that people with I/DD are incapable of performing these roles.
Keith Storey, Professor of Special Education and Program Chair at Touro University in Vallejo, CA, laments the lack of real relationships between people with and without disabilities in the Special Olympics. Storey claims coaches, volunteers and athletes rarely socialize with each other outside of the Special Olympics, perpetuating a culture of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ In Storey’s opinion, this culture fosters misplaced paternalism and negative stereotypes of people with I/DD. The piece goes on to say that volunteers are often assigned to set-up or monitor events, but spend little time interacting with the athletes unless they are assigned to be ‘huggers.’
The use of ‘huggers’ is particularly offensive to Storey. Huggers are volunteers who are assigned specifically to hug athletes such as when they cross the finish line at a track and field event. Their responsibility is to make sure the athlete has a one-person rooting section. While the Special Olympics does not promote this officially, Storey contends the practice stills remains and ‘reinforces the infantilization of adults with severe disabilities.’ He stresses athletes might learn that it is suitable to hug strangers in situations where it is not appropriate to do so.
Disability advocates are particularly concerned in how the media depicts the Special Olympics. Media accounts often describe athletes with I/DD as mentally retarded, handicapped, or suffering from a disability. In Professor Storey’s previously referenced piece, he cites news articles depicting demeaning images, sympathy or pity, as portrayed below:
But the real stars of the show were the event participants who, despite their mental handicaps, were able to inspire all who attended, as well as conjure up smiles from all the warm huggers and event contributors (The Union-Recorder [Milledgeville, GA, April 9, 2009]).
A headline in the Oakland Tribune remarked “Special Olympics’ Athletes Win Smiles: Races belong to not-so-swift, not-so-strong.”
Syracuse Herald-American said that it was difficult “deciding where the ‘special’ ends and the ‘Olympics ‘begins.”‘
An editorial in the same paper noted that Special Olympics volunteers learn that “the mentally retarded are ‘great kids.”‘
The Pittsburgh Press had a picture of a person being hugged with caption, “Special Hug.”
Growth in Popularity and Funding
Despite some negative opinions, the Special Olympics continues to grow in popularity. This popularity has translated into additional funding. President Bush signed into law the “Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act” on October 30, 2004. The bill authorized funding for the Special Olympics’ Healthy Athletes program, education, and worldwide expansion programs. In 2011, the “Eunice Kennedy Shriver Act” reauthorized federal funding for Special Olympics Programs and expanded services internationally.
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Act promotes full inclusion of people with I/DD through its grants and agreements with the Special Olympics. This Act promotes inclusive school and community activities for people with and without disabilities; offers education programs that dispel negative stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities; and promotes activities that increase the participation of people with intellectual disabilities in Special Olympics outside of the United States.
Special Olympics in North Carolina
Keith Fishburne, President/CEO of the Special Olympics in North Carolina (SONC) is proud of the programs they coordinate that integrate individuals with and without I/DD. SONC’s ‘Project Unify’ offers activities and events to students with and without I/DD that are typically a part of the Special Olympics experience. These experiences promote respect, dignity and advocacy for people with I/DD. In NC, over 120 elementary, middle and high schools, as well as three colleges, have been involved.
SONC strives to turn its athletes into leaders. Athlete Leadership Programs trains Special Olympians to become public speakers, coaches, sports officials or Athlete Council members. Others are being groomed, through their leadership programs, to increase representation by people with I/DD on SONC’s board of directors.
Fishburne stresses that ‘huggers’ have been banned by the SONC since the late 1980′s. The organization feels the use of huggers is condescending and not safe. “The chance of running into someone at the finish line is both dangerous to the athlete and to the volunteer.”
While Fishburne recognizes the games are not fully inclusive, he emphasizes that opportunities for athletes with I/DD to participate in other organized sports have not existed. “We are not an elitist program, advancing athletes to become the ‘cream of the crop.’ We celebrate the personal accomplishments of each athlete.”