I want to share with you a copy of the eloquent speech that Mary-Ellen Powers, a Special Olympics athlete from Rhode Island, shared with her members of Congress yesterday during Special Olympics’ annual advocacy day on Capitol Hill. If this didn’t prick the conscience of lawmakers on Capitol Hill to support Special Olympics, I don’t know what will!
There is a lot of isolation and misunderstanding in the classroom. Bullying is a big problem in our schools, and students who have intellectual disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their ‘typically developing’ peers. Researchers confirmed that a lot of times bullying is geared towards a person’s disability. Both Special Olympics and Best Buddies have come so far to spread the importance of acceptance and inclusion. Best Buddies is a program that fosters friendships between people who have intellectual disabilities, and their ‘typically developing’ peers around the same age, from middle school, all the way to college! Special Olympics has a great program in high schools, and now in middle schools called ‘Project Unify’, where athletes and their peers play sports together! All kids want to be accepted by their peers, especially people who have intellectual disabilities.
I struggled for peer acceptance and was verbally bullied when I was a teenager. I was often called ‘retarded’, not by the definition in the dictionary, or my medical diagnosis of Mosaic Down Syndrome, but kids were referring to me as ‘stupid’. I lost a great deal of self-confidence, and suffered for years in silence afraid to stand up for myself. I joined Special Olympics during my junior year of high school. Competing in my favorite sports, making new friends, and just being in the overall atmosphere made me very comfortable with myself and I gradually restored my self-confidence, and found my passion, and career in Special Olympics. I wouldn’t change anything about my past. I do, however don’t want teenagers with intellectual disabilities to go through the same horrible experiences I went through at their age. High Schools across the state of Rhode Island are participating in Project Unify sports together. They participate in Best Buddies. Athletes and their typically developing peers are eating lunch together, ‘hanging out’ together outside of school. The ‘Spread The Word To End The R-word’ campaign has made great strides in dropping the word ‘retarded’ from everyday language. Most importantly, they feel accepted, respected and included! It can only get better, and we need your support to back us up!
Another problem people with Intellectual Disabilities face is that they are un-employed, yet very capable of being employed. I never let the fact that I have a disability stop me from pursuing my dreams. When I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I made that dream happen after receiving state certification for teacher assistants at Salve Regina University, and spent nine great years working as a Teacher Assistant at Meeting Street. One of the greatest benefits of working with students who have intellectual disabilities, is that on some level, I could relate to them, since I have one myself! Besides competing in a variety of sports as an athlete, I have also volunteered for various events for Special Olympics Rhode Island over the years, and developed a dream to work for them some day. This past June, I was offered a full-time job working for them! I am very blessed that my dreams have come true, but my friends deserve to have their dreams come true too. People who have intellectual disabilities learn at a slower rate, but we are not useless. We all have our gifts and talents, and we are capable of bringing them to the workplace, if given the chance. Some work in grocery stores as baggers, and have talents they can use in different work settings. Some of my friends receive services that provide care-takers and transportation that take them to their part-time employment, and they are at risk of getting their services cut.
My younger brother Patrick who has a severe form of autism is a perfect example of a person with an intellectual disability at risk of getting his services cut. As it is, it is tough for him to stay home during a hurricane or snow storm, because he loves being busy and on the go all the time. Patrick is transitioning out of high school, attending a day program for adults who have intellectual disabilities, and eagerly anticipates going to his job placements with his direct service staff while my both my parents work full-time. With the state of the economy, neither of my parents can afford to be unemployed, or ready to retire. Not only would his services be cut, but the hours he could be at his day placement or receive home support would also be cut. Patrick needs his services. There are many families across the state struggling with the potential budget cuts as well. We need your support to fight these budget cuts. My friends who are unemployed deserve to work, and not just rely on their social security checks. I am very grateful to have an apartment next door to my parents, and MANY of my athlete friends who are capable of living on their own wish to do so someday if they can afford it. Please help give them employment, and help them achieve their dreams just like I did!
Studies show that people who have intellectual disabilities have worst health care than the rest of the population. Some don’t even have a health care plan, because they don’t even have insurance to cover a plan. Thanks to the ‘Healthy Athletes’ program, doctors and specialists take time out of their busy schedules, attend our state summer games, and do screenings with athletes between competitions. From ‘Opening Eyes’ to ‘Special Smiles’, massage therapy, (one of my personal favorites!) Fun Fitness, and Healthy Hearing, both the doctors and athletes enjoy the screenings! It is also important for us to be able to communicate with these specialists and comprehend what they are telling us. When I was younger, going to doctors appointments with my mother were very helpful, especially since she was a nurse for many years. She and the doctor would talk in ‘medical terms’ then they would translate into words I could understand. Now that I am older, wiser, and more independent, some doctors that I see naturally explain things in terms I understand, but if there are things that confuse me, I ask them to explain a little better. I think about my friends who fall on the moderate to severe spectrums of intellectual disabilities who have a harder time comprehending things, and I think it is VERY important that doctors get to know us through these healthy athlete screenings, and build that communication together. If funding for health insurance isn’t possible, we do need funding to keep the Healthy Athletes program strong and running year-round! Special Olympics Rhode Island is partnering with Memorial Hospital to create a year-round health program that will help our athletes improve their quality of life. Especially for those who don’t have health care plans, and have used their Healthy Athlete screenings as their ‘check ups’. We need the financial support because this is very critical to the health of individuals who have intellectual disabilities!