Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Thoughts on the Special Olympics

I’m expecting to ruffle some feathers with this one.  I'd like to talk a bit about the Special Olympics.

Special Olympics?

My first exposure to Special Olympic sports was with a bowling team, where I was a volunteer coach. Many participants needed a great deal of support and coaching to get, by typical standards, anything approaching a score on the low side of average. Others didn’t need as much support to get skills that were average or even a little above.

And then there were a couple of participants who consistently got either strikes or spares on almost every frame, with almost no support or coaching, week after week.

And week after week, I’d ask myself, “Why are they in Special Olympics? Why aren’t they competing in a regular league, with ability like that?”

Special Olympics: Positives and Negatives

 I see the merits of the Special Olympics movement, and it’s not that I don’t support what it does. I just think that it needs to operate in tandem with other opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports activities in their communities. There needs to be options. Because I *don’t* agree with the idea of pigeonholing someone into a particular sphere of competition based on a cognitive measure rather than their potential to train and do well in event.

I’d rather let people make their own choices about athletic competitions. I think that, for some people with intellectual disabilities, being involved in the Special Olympics movement works well. They get a chance to compete among peers with disabilities, they have a chance to win that they may not have in competition with their peers who don’t have disabilities, and being able to participate in a sports competition gives them something they can use to relate to their peers in general. They learn lessons about good sportsmanship and social skills, and they experience the benefits of participating in sports.

However, the Special Olympics movement came about during a time when people assumed that people with intellectual disabilities are most comfortable when they’re associating with other people with intellectual disabilities. Now, there’s no question that some are; why wouldn’t they be?  Many would have experiences in common, relate to each other on a similar cognitive level, and potentially receive the same supports. In that sense, they truly are peers, and there’s not a thing wrong with that…if that’s what they want.

An Argument for Options

Because there are just as many people with intellectual disabilities who prefer not to think of themselves as such, that don’t want supports that group them with others with these disabilities, and that would much rather spend time with friends and family who don’t have disabilities. And I get concerned sometimes that people with disabilities who don’t express that preference may not be doing so only because they haven’t had a lot of opportunities to see what those relationships with people without disabilities could offer: they’ve been institutionalized for a large part of their lives, or (for the youth) in Special Education classes all through school.  They haven’t done a lot (if any) extracurricular or community activities, and they don’t really know what people without disabilities do in their friendships, activities, and social roles.

If the Special Olympics bowling is all you know, how can you make a choice about whether you want to do something else in the word of sports? Maybe you’d actually prefer league bowling, but if you’ve never had the option of participating in any sports activities but Special Olympics, how would you know? And how would you ever know if you never get some sort of opportunity to try community play?

The Community's Role

Of course, sometimes intellectual disability creates social barriers to an individual participating in a “normal” sports competition. Sometimes behaviours are difficult to understand, or aren’t socially appropriate; sometimes there’s an issue with language expression or comprehension; sometimes the person may not understand the rules and need to be reminded. But then again, there are a whole lot of people without any sort of disability with those problems that manage to get along in the community!

Making sure that everyone has a place and the opportunitiy to participate takes some commitment and effort from us, too. But everybody benefits, in the end. And even if everything that we try doesn’t work, it all teaches life lessons; it all teaches us, as they say in the Special Olympics movement, “to be brave in the attempt”.

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