When Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics in 1968, she was proposing a bold strategy that was not understood or welcomed in its time. Intellectual disability (at that time mental retardation) was rarely mentioned, and people with intellectual disability were shunned and hidden away.
Shriver’s simple proposition was that if we could shed light on intellectual disability and what people with intellectual disability could accomplish, inclusion of this population as full participating members of society would result. She used sport, something familiar and comfortable to most people, as a metaphor for striving, succeeding and demonstrating competence and humanity. She got it right.
As Special Olympics celebrates its 45th birthday on July 20, 2013, the dramatic results of her bold vision have come to fruition. There are many ways to measure success. It could be the more than 4.2 million athletes training and competing in Special Olympics around the world in 170 countries and all 50 U.S. States. It could be millions of volunteers and coaches who have given of themselves, many for decades, to help create the largest amateur sports endeavor in history. It could be millions of individuals and thousands of organizations that have donated time, talent and treasure to support this burgeoning enterprise. It could be the athlete global messengers who proudly stand up and tell the story of Special Olympics and how it changes lives. It could be the families of children with intellectual disability whose fears have been turned to positive expectations for their children and who serve as beacons re-illuminating that first light that Eunice Shriver shone on intellectual disability.
Access is one of the most fundamental rights and needs of all people, including people with intellectual disability. Access to sports, quality health care, educational opportunities, employment, community organizations, early child development services, and overall dignity – these are the things historically denied to people with intellectual disabilities. But thanks to one woman’s vision decades ago and the tireless work of those comprising the Special Olympics Movement, the world is opening up to people with intellectual disabilities. The gains made in the last 45 years are nearly immeasurable, and in the pantheon of human rights, are indeed impressive.
And yet, these major waves, as impressive as they are, reflect what mostly can be seen on the surface. Underneath the smiles, raised hands in victory, applause, handshakes, hugs, photographs, and sheer delight is dramatic “hard evidence” of how Special Olympics has impacted lives and society.
Special Olympics has taken care to document the evidence underlying the truths that are experienced every day. This evidence, derived from cutting-edge research, intensive program evaluations and programmatic documentation, provides a strong push point for the next decades of progress for people with intellectual disability.
So, as we contemplate 45 burning candles on the Special Olympics birthday cake on July 20, we should keep in mind that this celebration was born out of a vision that for people with intellectual disability, there was more than met the eye. And, for Special Olympics itself, there is much more than meets the eye. The Special Olympics Flame of Hope that has been carried in the hands of torch bearers and the hearts of millions for decades, is the good luck candle that will continue to illuminate the considerable work that must go forward.
Happy birthday, Special Olympics…and many more.
Dr. Gary Siperstein
Director, Center for Social Development and Education
University of Massachusetts Boston
Dr. Stephen Corbin
Senior VP, Community Impact
Special Olympics International