When Mr. Andi was appointed to the Alabama Council for Developmental Disabilities (ACDD) almost three years ago, he was in for a rude awakening. Less than two weeks after Nathan was born, he had participated in the local Torch Run for Special Olympics in honor of Nathan and was proud to be affiliated with such a worthy organization.
Then he went to his first ACDD meeting.
Some of the self advocates seated around the table spoke out (vehemently!) against Special Olympics because, in their opinion, any organization that isn’t fully inclusive is B-A-D bad. They felt that only full participation in sports – by all, without qualifiers – was acceptable and they viewed Special Olympics as an obstacle to that aim.
On the one hand, they had a point.
Special Olympics is segregated, because only people with disabilities can compete, so Special Olympics athletes miss out on interactions with their able-bodied peers and may be discouraged from participation in “typical” sports because there is a “special” alternative. Media portrayal of Special Olympics events is often patronizing, reinforcing negative stereotypes and “othering” the athletes. Unlike the Deaf Olympics and Paralympics, the board of directors is dominated by people with no disability whatsoever.
All compelling arguments, and I agree – to a point.
The genesis of Special Olympics was when Eunice Kennedy Shriver realized in the late 1950s that children with intellectual disabilities had no place to play and began a summer camp for kids with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard. In those days, many of them were institutionalized and of those who remained with their families, few were allowed to attend school.
Special Olympics brought disability out into the open, and in doing so, cracked the door to inclusion and integration.
When I was in high school in the 1980s, children with disabilities attended school, but were largely segregated from the student body in a basement classroom. My role as a Special Olympics volunteer was the only interaction I had with most of my peers with intellectual disability. Was it ideal? No – and not even judged against today’s imperfect standards. But it was better than the nothing of my daily experience.
In a perfect world, inclusion would be the norm.
But is the problem caused (or abetted) by Special Olympics, or is Special Olympics simply the mirror that reflects society’s continuing biases? If the need for it didn’t exist, wouldn’t Special Olympics be dying out on its own?
Several weeks ago, I wrote about Miss You Can Do It, the documentary about the pageant of the same name. Reader Galit directed me to this post about the pageant and asked my thoughts, and reader Cara sent me to this one with the perspective of several disabled women. Both expressed concern about the idea of a pageant solely for girls with disabilities.
The arguments against the Miss You Can Do It pageant are not unlike those against Special Olympics – it’s a segregated event and the media coverage is inevitably “inspiration porn” (as Cara says – great phrasing!) which leads to othering of the participants. Valid points, and I agree – again, only to a point.
These arguments don’t take the long view.
I would love for both of my kids to be included 100% in all activities with typical kids, but that’s not the world we currently live in. We have, however, made great strides during my lifetime and I believe we’re continuing to make steady progress toward that end goal. Organizations like Special Olympics and Miss You Can Do It have given differently-abled people the opportunity to participate in activities that were not open to them before, and in doing so, have shown the world that people with disabilities are interested in those things. How many able bodied people do you think would be (or were) surprised to learn that a girl in a wheelchair would want to be in a beauty pageant? If they don’t know that, would it ever occur to them to include her, much less encourage her?
In my view, these organizations are bridges across a gigantic chasm.
Four decades after Special Olympics was founded, it’s common to see kids with disabilities on sports teams and cheerleading squads. How much of that progress can be traced back to organizations like Special Olympics? Beauty pageants could be the last frontier for inclusion of those who don’t fit the mold of the ideal body type.