Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sugar-Coated Segregation

Once upon a time in the United States, an athletic league was established. It provided a new opportunity to those who were not accepted elsewhere. Its players, although excluded from mainstream society and often treated as if they were less than human, had a chance to be heroes on the field.

No, this isn't a description of the Special Olympics, but of Negro League Baseball. In the early 20th century, when black athletes were not welcome on segregated major league teams, the players of the Negro League entertained and inspired the people of the African-American community.

I could just as easily have been talking about the Special Olympics, though, and it's a rather disturbing similarity. By making this comparison, I don't intend any disrespect toward the group's founders; Special Olympics got its start during an ugly period in American history when children with significant disabilities often were sent away to institutions on the advice of doctors who, in many cases, told the parents to forget that they ever had the child. For those families who defied the social pressure and kept their children, everyday life was difficult and isolating. The children were routinely excluded from schools and sports activities. There were no laws against disability discrimination.

During those grim years, Special Olympics affirmed the humanity of children with disabilities and gave them a chance to participate in athletics like other children, in much the same way that the Negro League gave an opportunity to those excluded elsewhere. But now, I believe it's time to ask: Has Special Olympics outlived its usefulness? Does its continued existence have the effect of perpetuating the segregation of neurological minorities?

Kristina Chew touched on this issue in a post about a world-class sprinter who competes on prosthetic legs. She mentioned that she was


wondering why did we need to have a separate Olympics—-the Paralympics and even the Special Olympics—for disabled athletes? What if, with (not “despite”) their disabilities, the disabled athletes could still compete with those who were not disabled? Why have separate games?


Of course, not every young person with a developmental difference or disability is going to be able to compete at the world-class level or even qualify for their high school varsity team. That's true of children in general, however. In most cases, the question that we should be asking is not whether a child with a disability will someday go to the Olympics, but whether it's possible for that child to be accepted as just another kid on a local youth sports team, in the same way that other children can play in recreational leagues even if they don't have much talent. If the answer is anything other than yes—we need to recognize that we are dealing with prejudice and discrimination, rather than issues of ability.

It has been amply demonstrated that people with developmental differences are capable of participating in mainstream athletic endeavors, on either a competitive or a recreational basis. There is a wide variety of athletic talent in the autistic population, as there is among any group of people. For example, some autistics are competitive gymnasts; some regularly participate in marathons and other road races; others are competitive dancers. Had they been discouraged from competing in these events by reason of a misguided belief that people like them belonged only in the Special Olympics, it would have done these young people a grave injustice.

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6 Comments:

  • On the one side: Special Olympics is not simply about games and competitions. My five year old son is in a horseback-riding program through Special Olympics. Not only is this program available at no cost to us, it is staffed with workers who know more or less what to expect when working with a child on the spectrum, (and presumably mild-tempered horses - although this is only a guess). Sadly, because of high demand, he only gets about 20 minutes a week on the horse, but it's better than nothing, and he absolutely loves it. So Special Olympics is definitely providing some benefit to my family.

    On the other side: Even at five, he is quite a good swimmer. Being non-verbal and not inclined to accept instructions very well, his swimming has been almost entirely self-taught. It has been a very organic learning process, and there is something about that that we like very much. But looking into his future, as every parent does, I suppose, when they see their child excel at something, it is difficult to picture him participating in the 'regular' Olympics. Something tells me that even if he were breaking records, he would be ushered away. I'm not really sure why I even have reason to believe this.

    By Blogger Heather, at 1:27 PM  

  • I think an argument of this nature will bring a lot of people balking without even realizing why they're disagreeing. It's hard for us to imagine someone with "disabilities" that isn't experiencing the pressure of the "dis" part.

    -Aaron Marks

    By Anonymous Assistive technology, at 2:18 PM  

  • Special Olympics still gives training manuals, coaching tips, etc., for teachers/coaches of SEVERELY disabled kids, who would not have a chance in any other forum.

    One mother told me, "I didn't think they would have anything for T. to do! I'm so glad I came!" We spent weeks getting ready...and the kids had a good time.

    Having said that, there were also athletes there who could stand their own against anyone.

    Teachers/Coaches gave info to S.O. personnel stats weeks ahead of time (times of running, length of tennis/softball throw) so that the kids would be in heats with equally-abled peers.

    By Blogger r.b., at 4:29 PM  

  • Im always glad to hear that an event such as this is benefiting disabled kids such as is being described here.

    1st Im wondering about how they match up peoples abilities for who people are chosen to compete with.

    2nd While it was sometimes gratifying to be treated as special as a child, the term has seemed more patronizing as Ive grown older. The term "special" as it is often applied to disabled people is responible for alot of negative stereotypes and does not reflect how alot of disabled people want to be seen at all.

    By Blogger Ed, at 9:03 AM  

  • I just wish they'd stop calling my house asking for money. It's one thing if they'd call once or twice- but they have been calling twice a day for teh last three weeks.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 11:33 AM  

  • It would be nice if disabled people were accepted into the mainstream sports groups. Things have improved a bit The trouble is that the lower down the ability scale you go, the less likely it is that such acceptance would be provided.

    I and several other people from my local disability swimming club (affiliated with Special Olympics plus another similar organisation) joined a local "conventional" swimming club. We were allowed to swim there for a couple of years, but weren't granted coaching or the opportunity to swim in the same lanes as the other swimmers (despite both being requested, both being provided to the other swimmers, us being quicker than some of the others and everyone paying the same fee).

    Eventually, we got thrown out of the "conventional" club, ostensibly because we were over 18 (even though I was the only one under 18 at the time we joined, and some of the others were over 18). We suspect they threw us out because their discriminatory practises cost too much money and they couldn't be bothered to do the obvious i.e treat everyone equally.

    The disability club, on the other hand, has always provided coaching, always allowed people to swim in it (even if the sporting officials don't recognise that a particular individual is disabled) and gives everyone a fair chance to compete at their level.

    Special Olympics is still necessary because otherwise a lot of people wouldn't get to participate in sports. The separate Games (which exist all the way to World Games level - the Paralympics is organised by the original Olympic committee) allow disabled people to compete without fear of discrimination. The fact that the World Games get shunted to one side a lot is the media's fault.

    A sporting system that accepted everyone would be great. But for that to happen, the Special Olympics model would have to become the default for sporting clubs, not the exception reserved for disabled people.

    By Anonymous Alianora La Canta, at 11:34 AM  

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