Special Olympics is humanity’s greatest classroom, where lessons of ability, acceptance and inclusion are taught on the fields of competition by our greatest teachers – the athletes.
Opening Windows of Understanding
When people see the seriousness and sense of purpose evident in each Special Olympics athletic event, a window of understanding opens. In hundreds of competitions a year around the world, people everywhere get the chance to have their eyes opened and their perspectives widened.
Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities (volunteer at your local Special Olympics program). Those activities give them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship.
While sports is the focus of the movement, other opportunities to change attitudes emerge along the way.
Misconceptions Frame Attitudes
Most attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities are framed by negative stereotypes and misconceptions. Yet when people see Special Olympics athletes in competition, they find their attitudes changing – not just about what those with intellectual disabilities can do, but also about what they themselves can do to help build a better world.
Part of the Special Olympics mission is educating people about the dignity and gifts of all people, not only those who have intellectual disabilities. A case in point occurred recently in Afghanistan. Eleven young athletes journeyed to the United States for the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter games. When they returned home, there was an entire country waiting to rejoice with them, with government leaders at the head of the line.
Playing Together Paves the Way
Special Olympics Slovakia saw an opportunity to change attitudes when it started a Unified Sports® football (soccer) team, pairing up students from a special school and a mainstream school. Until then, students in the mainstream school ignored or were occasionally unkind to the students with intellectual disabilities. After the students played on the same team, everything changed. A teacher reported, “Now there is no teasing of special students on the street any more. An understanding developed that there are no differences between the regular and the special students.”
Familiarity Changes Minds
Special Olympics sports and youth outreach programs change attitudes and teach sensitivity and understanding of intellectual disability. This, in turn, leads to greater opportunities for communities to include them.