October 2012

One inclusive Games for all?

It is unfortunate that the Special Olympics do not coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

A couple of weeks ago, in late September, communities in the United States celebrated Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day. The day honours the legacy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a champion of people with intellectual disabilities and a lover of sports, but probably more famously known as a sister of President John F. Kennedy and his political brothers, and perhaps in Australia as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mother-in-law.

The Special Olympics pays particular tribute to Eunice, who was instrumental in developing the program. In 1968, the idea for Special Olympics was supported by the legendary Kennedy family which automatically assured the movement publicity and growth. Eunice, in particular, saw the Games as a way of encouraging the possibilities of people with intellectual disabilities, as well as participation in sports. The Kennedy family were personally connected to the issue, as another sister, Rosemary, acquired an intellectual disability – controversially, after a lobotomy designed to treat mental illness.

The Special Olympics quickly established in the United States, with other countries joining later. World Games are held every two years, alternating between summer and winter games. There are now millions of Special O athletes in more than 170 countries worldwide.

The philosophy of the Special Olympics is about maximising everyone’s potential, including those with intellectual disabilities, through encouragement, education and enjoyment of both individual and team sport. It’s about participation and inclusion; the Special Olympics believes that “where people with and without intellectual disabilities are brought together, long-standing myths are dispelled, negative attitudes changed and new opportunities to embrace and celebrate people with intellectual disabilities are created”.

While celebrating the Paralympics as a more inclusive pair to the Olympic Games, some commentators acknowledge that the Paralympics’ inclusion is limited to those with physical, rather than intellectual disabilities. The Paralympics itself becomes an instrument of exclusion for those with an intellectual impairment. In this aspect, the Special Olympics ideal “to transform communities by inspiring people throughout the world to open their minds, accept and include people with intellectual disabilities and thereby anyone who is perceived as different”, is visionary.

The Olympic movement gave approval for the name, and so the Special Olympics reflect “the values, standards, traditions, ceremonies and events embodied in the modern Olympic movement”. Yet, the Special Olympics principles are in my view, superior, because they hold that “Olympic-type activities… [be]… broadened and enriched to celebrate the moral and spiritual qualities of persons with intellectual disabilities in order to enhance their dignity and self-esteem”.

It is unfortunate that the Special Olympics do not coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games; such a move could provide a counterpoint to the non-representation of people with intellectual disabilities in the sporting arena.

An important aspect of the Special Olympics is the year-round grassroots involvement of people with intellectual disabilities, which provides ongoing training and opportunities to develop their gifts, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially, and celebrate their achievements. Importantly, the Special Olympics are open to all over eight years of age, “regardless of the degree of their disability”, and include events and activities “appropriate to the age and ability level of each athlete”. And most impressively, it “provides full participation for every athlete regardless of economic circumstances” and considers the conditions for that participation.

Training is year-round, by qualified people, with the goal of transitioning participants into regular community sports activities – though they are free to continue their involvement in Special Olympics as well. Despite sport being a frequent ice-breaker, generally people with disabilities do not participate in sport due to various cultural and economic obstacles. Yet, community-based sport inclusion offers great potential to overcome prejudices in broader society and inspire change in other areas.

The Special Olympics movement also offers secondary cultural experiences as well as sports training and competition. The movement encourages volunteer support in other aspects of running the movement, “in order to foster greater understanding of intellectual disabilities” by those in the broader community. Acceptance, respect and useful inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities into wider society are first principles of Special Olympics, and it describes the Special Olympics spirit as skill, courage, sharing and joy, “universal values that transcend all boundaries of geography, nationality, political philosophy, gender, age, race or religion”.

The Special Olympics Trans-Tasman Tournament ran earlier this month in Cairns. In late 2013 there will be an Asia-Pacific Games, and the World Games will be held in Los Angeles in 2015, ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio in 2016.

There’s already an argument for the Olympics and Paralympics to be the one Games. It would be a momentous signal of inclusion if the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics organisers took their inspiration from Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and incorporate the Special Olympics World Games into this event as a precursory step towards one inclusive Games for all.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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