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.