You might have noticed last week that the Special Olympics was at the center of a brouhaha after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed there were plans to cut its $17.6 million in government funding. The public outcry was so fierce that President Trump quickly reversed his education secretary’s decision and authorized the funding.
Maybe he realized that cutting the funding made it look like his administration was cruel, cutting access to inclusive programs for people with intellectual disabilities.
The Special Olympics has roots in an innovative summer camp that Eunice Kennedy Shriver started for young people with intellectual disabilities in 1962 in her backyard in a Washington, D.C. suburb. She wanted to see if they could participate in sports and physical activities. It was a revolutionary idea at the time.
When the first Special Olympics games were held in 1968, people with intellectual disabilities did not have many opportunities to take part in sports. Many lived in institutions. Most could not go to school, as several years would have to pass before the law said kids with disabilities had the same right to an education as everyone else.
The Special Olympics ultimately became one of the first places where people with intellectual disabilities could be seen and accepted. Both kids and adults now participate in Special Olympics sports.
By the 1980s, the Special Olympics was recognized as the premier sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities around the world.
By 2016, the Special Olympics exceeded its ambitious goal of getting 1 million athletes and partners involved in Unified Sports, which brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.
These days, 4.9 million athletes with intellectual disabilities take part in Special Olympics programs around the world. In addition, more than 1 million coaches and volunteers are involved. There are 223 programs in 172 countries.
In March 2019, Angela Athenas, 34, of Huntington, N.Y., won a gold medal in deadlift, squat, bench press, and overall weight lifting at the International Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. Her heaviest deadlift was 292 pounds.” I keep going and I never stop going,” Athenas told Eyewitness News. Although she has ADHD, bipolar disorder, and a mild intellectual delay, they haven’t limited her ability to be a standout in her sport.
“The best part about being involved with Special Olympics is to meet new friends and to prove that people with disabilities can do anything that we put our minds to do,” wrote Robert Moore, 27, an equestrian with autism from Tampa, Fla., who won a gold medal for dressage, a highly skilled form of riding. He has been going to the Special Olympics for 16 years. As a young child, he suffered from poor core strength and sat curled in a ball. Working with horses, which involves considerable core power, starting at age 5 changed that.
The Special Olympics offers many ways to get involved including short- and long-term volunteer opportunities, the option of playing unified sports, and becoming a Special Olympics athlete.
Learn more about how to get involved with Special Olympics: