Not too long ago, intellectually disabled people were viewed as cacophonous chords that had no place in the musical score of society. Infact it wasn't uncommon to send children with an intellectual disability to an institution and publish an obituary notice announcing their death. In the institutions and warehouses in the far corners of society where they lived...
"There was an overpowering smell of urine from clothes and from the floors. I remember the retarded patients with nothing to do, standing, staring, grotesque-like misshaped statues...." Eunice Kennedy Shriver
But at the Special Olympics GB National Games held in Sheffield a few weeks ago I saw intellectually disabled people competing, persevering and winning in horse riding, basketball, gymnastics and other sports. As Jack McCallum says "you watch and what you see is nothing less than a transformation, the passage of someone who has been labeled unfortunate, handicapped, disabled or challenged to something else: athlete." This magnificent achievement in the history of humanity to be able to see an intellectually disabled person as a human with value was brought about by one woman - Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She used all that she was as an affluent and influential member of society and a Roman Catholic, to put to practice what Jesus Christ preached to His followers - "truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Matthew 25:40
The scientists and doctors of Shriver's time had labelled the intellectually disabled among "the least of the society" and thought research on them was futile. But she set up research laboratories in major universities and contributed towards setting up The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Realizing that the disabled were excluded from a basic activity such as playing sport, she welcomed them to her own backyard and ran Camp Shriver. She then founded the Special Olympics which in 2017 includes 35 different sports, more than 4.9 million athletes from 172 countries and a million volunteers. It also provides health services to people with intellectual disabilities and is the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving them.
Picture by Col Morley - Special Olympics GB
As I was awe struck by the event, I spoke to a few people to learn about how and why this event matters. One mother I spoke to was convinced that participation in inclusive sports is essential for every child with special needs. She remembers her son who she adopted when he was over three years old, with a diagnosis of mild to moderate learning disability and atypical autism with difficult behaviors, exhibiting cooperation with another person for the first time while playing basketball. His difficult behaviors meant he needed 45 minutes to get into a car on a normal day, but he thrived on the basketball court.
Jenny Sirivivatnanon, the cheerful and proud mother of Nalyn, says that her daughter started netball at the age of 10 and now plays in a state level team and volunteers as a coach, helping younger children with special needs to learn and enjoy the sport. Vute Sirivivatnanon, Nalyn's father strongly believes in focussing on the positives of a special needs child which helps the parent and the child navigate what is most often a challenging road towards adulthood. Nalyn who I briefly met was still heady from her team's recent victory and her giddy laughter with her team mates conveyed the camaraderie among the athletes. It was evident how sport helps athletes build social networks and support groups which demonstrably contribute to increasing their self worth and joy of living.
It can't be easy for coaches to work with the intellectually disabled, I surmised. So I spoke with John Smith a coach of the East Midlands basketball team and a former professional player for The Leicester Riders. He said basketball was a way of getting out of his troubled childhood and he sees it as the vehicle that could take children with special needs out of their limitations, to a successful and purposeful life. He views children with special needs the same as other children and tells them " if you're here, you can do it"!
Picture by Col Morley - Special Olympics GB
For transforming millions of people who once were "grotesque misshaped statues" into football kicking, swimming, horse riding people with value, and for mobilizing others in the society to love and care for them, the Special Olympics is an achievement of humanity, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver its founder one of the greatest humans to ever have lived. She has the greatest honor for recognizing that every chord in the musical score adds to the melodious symphony of the world. She has shown us that our job is to allow the music to play in the manner it is written in. For unknown to us, the chords that produce cacophonous sounds on their own, contribute to better and richer music.
In her words...
"For these little flames radiate warmth and soothing quiet joy; they shine on the road that leads to the wisdom of the heart, to human maturity, and to true wealth." Eunice Shriver Kennedy