Favorite "Meditation of My Heart"

Call unto me,

and I will answer thee,

and shew thee great and mighty things,

which thou knowest not. --Jeremiah 33:3 KJV

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why My Kids Don't "Do" Special Olympics...

Grace and Vanessa
Photo by Marie's Cottage Photography
When my oldest Grace returned to public school for one year in 7th grade, I was shocked to find huge, unanalyzed support of Special Olympics.  It was suggested to Grace to run for Student Council and she was excited at the idea. However, we learned that she would be required to fund raise for Special Olympics and to volunteer with the organization.  The volunteering was okay with us since we thought it would be good for her to assess the organization first hand and arrive at some of her own conclusions.  However, we simply could not allow her to fund raise for this organization that we believe is a hindrance to opportunities for inclusive recreation for people with disabilities.  As a result, despite my pleading our case, Grace was not allowed on the ballot for Student Council. 

Special Olympics is like a sacred organization in our country, but many former participants, like myself, have strong feelings that the organization has failed to evolve into an "inclusive, consumer driven" organization.  I know I just rolled out jargon so let me explain.  "Inclusive" means disabled and non-disabled would participate in all levels of the organization and its programs.  For example, programs wouldn't be "for" people with disabilities, but rather "with" people with disabilities or better yet "by" people with disabilities.  "Consumer driven" would encourage persons with disabilities to be involved as coaches, volunteers, organizers and not just program participants.  "Consumer driven" would recognize the diverse talents of each person with a disability, rather than a pat on the head for "bravely trying" a new activity, which may not have even interested the person.

Let me briefly summarize my objections:

1.  When trying to enroll a child with a disability in a community sport, children with disabilities are frequently turned down and referred to the "Special Olympics", even if the sport is not offered by Special Olympics in the area.  The existence of "Special Olympics" often makes local YMCAs and park boards believe that they need "special training to work with special kids".  The situation couldn't be further from the truth.  Kids are kids and each is unique.  Every child just needs an adult that is motivated to learn about abilities and to create opportunities.

2. Kids with disabilities are diverse.  Some kids are good at reading, some at math, some at art or music or caring and listening or helping.  However, the Special Olympics reduces the person with a disability to a single interest for their PR.  Like their athlete's oath says, ""Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."  The oath makes me gag.  I can guarantee you that most Special Olympians have faced opposition and difficulties a lot tougher than a 50 meter dash!  By the way, The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin expression meaning "Faster, Higher, Stronger", and the Olympic creed:  "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."  Now that is MORE like it!

3.  The Special Olympics rarely changes hurtful, exclusionary behaviors in peer groups.  In fact many teen volunteers actually believe that Special Olympians NEED segregated sports because "THEY" "might go off" or "hurt someone" or "be inappropriate" if THEY were included with non-disabled peers.  Just because the peer has a great day helping with the Special Olympics, it doesn't change who THEY sit by at lunch the next day. 

 4.  Smile!  When volunteers list their motivation for being involved, it is almost always for the smiles.  That in and of itself is okay, but it is often presented as though the volunteer doesn't think the participant regularly smiles. 
5.  Pity....it is such a pity that the volunteers are not trained to avoid using pity drenched comments and encouragement.  Patting a participant on the head should be grounds for dismissal and don't even get me started on all the inappropriate hugging between volunteers and participants.  In many cases, parents have set physical touch limits concerning strangers for the safety of their youngsters, but Special Olympic volunteers tend to tear down these limits as though they think they are the ONLY people who will hug this youngster.  The hugs are based on the volunteer feeling good and are not respectful of the close relationships (with hugging) that the Special Olympian already has in their life.
What needs to change?
1.  Persons with disabilities need to be involved at all levels of the organization, not just participants.
2.  The Special Olympics needs to be a resource for local community programs and offer them assistance (especially in finding and funding or borrowing modified recreation equipment).  Literature, 1-800 #s, and webinars would be a great start!
3.  A new "grown-up" motto PLEASE!!!!
4.  True "no pity" training for volunteers and include volunteers with disabilities.  Require debriefing trainings after events to work on changing behaviors to be more inclusionary.  THEY and THEM thinking should be challenged by the experience of volunteering, NOT solidified!
5.  Scholarships should be available to help athletes with disabilities train in inclusive environments.
Yes, I know this blog has made some people mad, BUT remember these are MY views as a past participant and as a mom who will not allow my children to participate until the Special Olympics catches up to the inclusive, self-directing, self-advocating world that is available to me and my kids.  Special Olympics ideals have changed very little since the 1960's and laws such as the Rehabilitation Act, IDEA, Fair Housing and the ADA have opened doors to inclusive opportunities that Special Olympics is still trying to keep shut.  For now, I think my kids are better off without the outdated ideas and experiences.
Paralymics Motto:  Spirit in Motion.
In 2001, the IOC has written its commitment to equal access to athletics for all people into its charter, which states, “ The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play....Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

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