The following is by Susan Senator, a writer, activist and the mother of a Special Olympics athlete.
On December 9th I attended Tim Shriver’s book event at the JFK Library in Boston as a guest of Special Olympics Massachusetts. The book Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most, is a combination memoir, biography, and philosophical piece by Special Olympics Chairman Tim, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started Special Olympics. WBUR’s Deborah Becker joined Tim and facilitated the conversation with a masterful subtlety.
As expected, Tim talked about the disability movement, and how it originated largely due to his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, who was the first president to invite an intellectually disabled person to the White House, who helped launch several initiatives to research intellectual disability and began the movement to close institutions. Tim also discussed the influences in his life: his mom and his Aunt Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. The delightful surprise was hearing Tim talk about his own exploration of mysticism and how it all led back to the disability movement. “You have to come to an interior place,” he said, “And in that space, you will become who you are.” That’s his mind-bending way of saying that once you can relax enough into just being yourself, you will finally know what’s important in life. He illustrated this philosophy but asking us, the audience, to imagine a United States where everyone is employed. Everyone, even the intellectually disabled. “Can you imagine that?” he asked, smiling. We didn’t realize at first that he was actually asking us to imagine it. So we did. “Now that you have imagined it, you should try to figure out how to make it so. But first you have to be invited to imagine it.” That imagining is not something most of us are asked to do.
But Special Olympic Athletes are asked to imagine succeeding — perhaps for the first time in their lives. Everywhere else they are “accommodated.” Educated –by mandate, and if you think about it, that implies that you have to do it. Because the law requires it. But in Special Olympics, the Athlete can imagine himself winning, all out, sweaty and panting. The first three words of the Special Olympics oath itself epitomizes this: “Let me win.” (Hey, by the way, do “Real” Olympic Athletes have an oath? Hmmm.)
It is a challenge speaking and writing about Special Olympics and the disability rights movement because everyone already thinks they know what you’re going to say: “Awww, it’s just so doggone special.” This is the basic reaction when you mention Special Olympics. Yes, dammit, of course, but that’s so beside the point. What makes Special O truly special, is that it is one place in life where the “fun is important, and the important is fun,” as Tim put it. “We have a backwards view of Special Olympics,” he said. “We’re trying to prove that our athletes are just like everyone else, that they’re going to fit in.” But the great secret of Special Olympics is that when you come over to their world, the world of the athletes, you get a chance to be just exactly who you are. Everyone involved with Special Olympics gets the chance to be, no matter where they start. You come to an event and you see people you are not used to looking at. Down syndrome, everywhere. People with autism flapping, people dragging walkers. All ages, all shapes. You’re in the minority. You with your big shot Able body. You are not the star there. If you’re a volunteer, a coach, or even the President of Special Olympics, at the games you are wearing a team tee shirt, not a coat and tie. So you relax. If you’re a parent like me, you are not judged. Or pitied. Better yet, your kid is not judged — except by the refs, the timekeepers. This is a sports competition, after all, so some people get the fastest or highest score. Only some get the gold medal. They all want it, but they don’t all get that gold and that in itself is spectacular. There are standards, but somehow, there is also equality.
How is that possible? Sportsmanship. And there is no good sport like a Special Olympian. If I may make a sweeping generalization: they know how it feels to be humbled. Tim, who has met world leaders and shmoozed the best of the best minds, described how Nelson Mandela was a Special Olympics fan, showing up when he wasn’t even expected. And so Tim asked Mandela to “teach” him” some of his incredible life’s lessons.
“I learned what every prisoner knows,” Mandela said. “Humility and simplicity. But you don’t need me to teach you,” he said. “You have the athletes.”