Special Olympics, Please Stop Sugarcoating Disability

Competitors run during the finals of the Women's 100m sprints during the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, at the Loker USC Stadium in Los Angeles on July 30, 2015.

Source MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

The sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities should stop peddling false promises.

My sister is in a national TV ad for the Special Olympics. She plays a bride, and her real-life boyfriend plays the groom. In the ad, they embrace on the steps of City Hall, the image of a newly wedded couple with Down syndrome.

As they embrace, and as other actors with intellectual and developmental disabilities flash across the screen, we hear the voice of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and a sister of President John F. Kennedy

The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it.
The right to study in any school? You have earned it. 
The right to hold a job? You have earned it.

These things sound good. But not a single one of them is true. 

My sister doesn’t have the right to play on any playing field — she didn’t even have the right to play junior varsity soccer in high school. She doesn’t have the right to study in any school — just ask all the colleges that would refuse her admission. And she doesn’t have the right to hold a job; she merely has the right to compete for one, with reasonable accommodations for her disability.

In the ad, Shriver’s voice continues: “You have taught us that what matters is not power or politics, weapons or wealth. What truly counts is the courageous spirit and the generous heart. The days of separation and segregation are over.”

 

These claims obviously aren’t true either. Courageousness of spirit and generosity of heart were not all that mattered in securing the rights my sister does have — a lot of what mattered was power, politics and wealth. And separation and segregation on the basis of disability — though less rampant than they once were — remain common in every facet of American life.

My sister is aware of these disconnects, at least deep down. She volunteers at an animal shelter because, apart from occasional acting gigs, she has struggled to get paid work. Among her friends with similar disabilities, a paid job is a bragging right that few possess. Meanwhile, she has watched childhood friends without disabilities move on to playing fields and schools and jobs well beyond her grasp.

The Special Olympics formula invites us to think that the world is more hospitable to people with intellectual disabilities than it really is.

 

Yet the ad glosses over all this as if fantasy were reality. That has been a common formula for the Special Olympics, an organization that casts all its participants as winners and inspirations, but also elevates the stories of its most exceptional athletes as if they were the norm. 

This formula, no doubt, can boost the self-confidence of people with disabilities and undercut unfair prejudices against them held by many in the general public. “Most of the time,” says Michael Bérubé, who co-directs the disability studies program at Penn State and whose adult son has Down syndrome, “we have to fight like hell just to get people to entertain the notion that people with intellectual disabilities can go to school, learn things, hold down jobs, have friends and enjoy their lives.” 

But, as Bérubé notes, blanket statements like those in the ad can miss important nuances. Insidiously, the Special Olympics formula invites us to think that the world is more hospitable to people with intellectual disabilities than it really is. And, in papering over the more uncomfortable realities of life with an intellectual disability, the Special Olympics invites people like my sister — once the cheering has subsided — to feel shame for failing to measure up to the fantastical reality the ad portrays.

When I ask my sister if she and her boyfriend might get married in real life, she averts her eyes. “Maybe later,” she says. They have been together for nearly nine years. Marriage is uncommon for people with intellectual disabilities like theirs. In the ad, of course, they play the part, beaming before an adoring crowd. Still, in the moment before the camera cuts away, my sister’s face darkens. I wonder what crosses her mind.

She is, I think, seeing us seeing her. I want to tell her to ignore us, to forget that we’re watching. But of course we’re watching: The cameras are rolling. So we try to make sense of her, of all she is and all she is not. And she, in turn, tries to make sense of us.

She — and we — deserve a more honest picture.

John F. Muller writes and studies philosophy in Wisconsin. He was formerly a lecturer at Harvard Law School and an attorney in Los Angeles.  

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