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Reinventing the Special Olympics

Moving from a segregated to a unified model is a major shift for the 50-year-old organization. But do the new changes go far enough?

Bryan Guamonquispe, from Ecuador, reacts quickly when the referee blows the whistle. He takes a few quick steps forward, then uses his left foot to launch the ball toward the bottom right corner of the net. The Nigerian keeper, Ogundar Tussin, who had heroically kept Ecuador out of the net during regular time, dives to his left, but the odds on a penalty kick are never in the keeper's favor. The shot goes in. Ecuador wins. The dozen or so fans on the sidelines, mostly Chicago locals with Ecuadorian roots, shout in triumph. One pounds loudly on a big drum. The teammates rip off their shirts and form a leaping, hugging ring.

These teams are the new face of the Special Olympics. When they meet, they are playing so-called Unified Sports, which means that at least half of the players on the field at any one time have intellectual disabilities—or so I'm told by the officials monitoring the games. It's just not apparent who is or is not disabled on the pitch. Later, I hang in the stands with the Nigerian team during the finals, held at Toyota Park, normally home to the Chicago Fire and Red Stars professional soccer teams. Thousands have turned out to watch Slovakia defeat Brazil 2–1 in the women's final, then Ecuador beat Uruguay 1–0 on a late goal in the men's. The Special Olympics defines players as either "athletes" (people with disabilities) or "partners," but, as I sit with the Nigerians, all I find is a team, eager to watch the finals that they nearly got to play in.

For 50 years to the day, ever since Eunice Kennedy Shriver launched the first Special Olympics at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 20th, 1968, the Special Olympics has held contests in which athletes with intellectual disabilities compete against each other. Many athletes have testified to the positive effect that becoming a Special Olympian has had on their lives, but, over the past few decades, as the disability rights movement has shifted away from segregated models toward more inclusive ones, the Special Olympics had begun to feel a bit old-fashioned.

By contrast, the unified teams show what can happen when you prioritize inclusion. The Jamaican men's team, for example, gathers on a wide concrete plaza at the top of the stairs into the stadium. Renaldo Hunter, a tall and serious young man from Kingston, Jamaica, tells me that "working with my partner is about helping me become all. Better in sports, life, and job." He proudly tells me that he makes furniture. Down in the stands, Mark, who plays on the Illinois team, tells me that he's competed in Unified Sports for "six or eight years." He got into it through his school. His partner is Ethan, who, like Mark, comes from Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. Ethan, a varsity soccer player during high school, moved into Unified Sports after he graduated, explaining that his "uncle has special needs." I ask whether the current group really feels like one team; in unison, Ethan and Mark answer "Yeah!" and Ethan adds, "One unified team, together, just competing. This is a special group of kids."

Tim Shriver, chair of Special Olympics International, was among the advocates speaking at The Kennedy Forum National Summit on Mental Health Equity and Justice in Chicago at the Chicago Hilton and Tower Hotel on January 16th, 2018.

Tim Shriver, chair of Special Olympics International, was among the advocates speaking at The Kennedy Forum National Summit on Mental Health Equity and Justice in Chicago at the Chicago Hilton and Tower Hotel on January 16th, 2018.

Our conversation breaks up as the crowd behind us gets increasingly rowdy and jubilant. The thundersticks kaboom, and the Kansas City team sings the "Oh ... oh-OH-oh oh OHH OHH" from the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" at the tops of their lungs.

Getting to this point has taken decades, first in developing the framework for Unified Sports, then in convincing the leaders of the Special Olympics to devote resources to this model. Ever since 1968, when a local Chicago physical education teacher named Anne Burke—today she's an Illinois Supreme Court justice—convinced Shriver to organize games at Soldier Field for athletes with disabilities, the leaders of the organization have focused on building opportunities for those athletes to compete against one another. The scale of that first event was modest: Photos from 1968 reveal, at most, a few hundred spectators in the vast arena, but the field itself was crowded with athletes, and the success of the games launched a global brand. Today, over five million athletes from 174 countries compete in Special Olympics contests every year, with over 500,000 spectators attending the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles. While the organization also works on health and wellness efforts for people with intellectual disabilities and fights against the stigma that too often keeps them isolated, the core of the Special Olympics has always been sports.

According to Kim E. Nielsen, author of A Disability History of the United States, it was reasonable, even necessary, for the founders of the Special Olympics to create segregated competitions only for people with intellectual disabilities. "At the time it was radical," Nielsen explains. "In the '50s and '60s, parents began to acknowledge their kids with disabilities, didn't hide them, didn't tell everyone the child had died and institutionalize them. For many of those parents, it was a huge and terrifying step." In that era, the notion that such people might want and be able to compete in athletics at all was revolutionary. Today, though, Nielsen worries that "segregated forms of leisure contribute to the ongoing segregation of people with disabilities in society—politically, economically, culturally." Instead, she says, "We need integrated sports, just like integrated education."

Officials at the Special Olympics say they recognize the disability community's evolution toward a model of inclusion. But it's hard for a mega-charity to change; even small social justice organizations get stuck in outdated missions, bogged down by founder's syndrome (when founders try to keep organizations focused on their original vision instead of adapting to the times), or else find themselves left behind by the cutting-edge activists, artists, and intellectuals who drive social movements. Jon-Paul St. Germain, senior director of Unified Sports and sports partnerships for Special Olympics International, tells me that unified events have been part of the games since as far back as 1991, but it's still "a big change for the organization to switch from being this exclusive, only for people with intellectual disabilities, to taking a real forward direction on inclusivity." He says it's worth the trouble, though, and the shift is tied directly to the games' core mission. As St. Germain says: "We exist to change attitudes through sports. When people put on the same uniform, we can change attitudes [faster] because they have that intimate experience."

While the traditional games aren't going away, Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics International and Eunice's son, tells me over the phone that the future of the Special Olympics will "look a lot more like the Unified World Cup than it will look like Chicago, 1968." He believes that inclusion on the field can not only result in meaningful sports and all the benefits they bring to the competing individuals, but that people can take lessons from athletics and apply them more generally. Shriver says he wants people who "walk out on the playing field to be agents of change in school, health care, business, community building." The organization has branded this new mission the "inclusion revolution."


Can the Special Olympics truly be revolutionary? I'm not so sure. On the Saturday after the finals, the Special Olympics returns to Soldier Field, where celebrities and coaches lead drills and short matches in soccer, football, and other sports. Integrated cheer and dance teams perform. It's a relatively cool, clear day in the Windy City, a blessing for July. Turnout is good, and the mood is celebratory, including an impromptu dance party to Luis Fonsi's "Despacito." Later, Chance the Rapper, Usher, and others headline a glitzy (and pricey) gala by Lake Michigan to raise money for the games. Other than the scale of the event, though, this feels a lot like any other family focused disability organization annual celebration. Most of the visibly disabled people are teenagers and children. I locate only one visibly disabled person staffing any of the dozens of information booths.

By coincidence, Chicago's annual Disability Pride Parade is taking place on the same day as the celebration at Soldier Field. The parade moves through the Loop, up Dearborn Street to Daley Plaza, with floats and dance routines and a diverse group of marchers in terms of disabilities, race, class, and gender identity. Here, the calls for revolution are as unapologetic as the loud music. Every leader present identifies as disabled, and almost everyone behind a table handing out fliers or registering people to vote is visibly disabled. Their plan isn't to hope for goodwill, but to demand change. The conversations are about resisting police brutality in black communities, pushing state governments to stop incarcerating disabled folks, and advocating around core issues of food, housing, and employment insecurity.

If officials at the Special Olympics really want to lead an "inclusion revolution," they are somehow going to have to connect to this broader, feisty community without losing their ability to appeal to mainstream, often quite culturally conservative, audiences. That challenge lies ahead.

Here's what we can say for now: The soccer was amazing. The teams exemplified fully integrated microcommunities. If that's the kind of environment that the Special Olympics is fostering, it's a good change, and one that's long overdue.

Down near the center of Soldier Field, I find Anne Burke, the former P.E. teacher and now Illinois Supreme Court justice, talking to a camera crew. She's a slender, elderly woman making her way eagerly from event to event, pausing to take pictures with anyone who asks. I ask what she thinks about the shift to Unified Sports. She replies: "Isn't that what we want to do in the whole world? These children don't want to be special anymore; they want equality."