Special Olympics: Really Special, or Segregation’s Sacred Cow?

Hello readers,

I owe myself an apology, because recently, I made a mistake.

I got one of those charity calls–you know, the ones where you subscribe to magazines in exchange for a small donation to a certain worthy cause. I normally just hang up, since at their core, these are solicitations, and I already give to a couple of charities without using the phone. But this time, the cause was Special Olympics. I felt it would be hypocritical not to donate, so I said I would, in exchange for a subscription to a magazine I actually do read and enjoy.

Then however, I ran across some research on Special Olympics that made my stomach churn, guaranteeing I won’t donate to them again. That research–namely, a 2004 study by Keith Storey and some supporting articles–led me to question what I thought I knew, and what we as society think we know, about Special Olympics.

What Makes These Olympics So Special?

When you talk to people about disability advocacy, the disability rights movement, and so forth, there are certain things you just don’t touch. Special Olympics seems to be one of these. That is, people with and without disabilities don’t question the organization or its purpose. Why? I can think of a few reasons.

(1. Special Olympics is one of the oldest pro-disability organizations in existence, having begun in 1968. (Whether it’s truly pro-disability is another issue we’ll get to in a minute).

(2. Special Olympics has affected positive change in the lives of many people with intellectual disabilities. There are testimonies to this all over television, the Internet, and other forms of media. A young man named William Matthews, who has epilepsy and an intellectual disability, can be seen on YouTube giving a TED talk on the history and benefits of this organization, and he does make a compelling case.  I went to summer camp with Special Olympics athletes, who enjoyed and treasured their experiences. Their families treasured the experiences as well.

(3. Special Olympics (allegedly) gives young people with intellectual disabilities the chance to participate in something they normally would not get to participate in.

(4. And this seems to be the biggie: Special Olympics makes everyone so happy. It’s a feel-good organization with positive goals. Special Olympics wants persons with disabilities to participate, and when they do, everyone benefits. Great, yes?

Maybe–but maybe not.

What’s Really Going on Here?

Before we go further, I have a quick disclaimer. In no way am I trying to say, “If you or someone you love has participated in Special Olympics, you are anti-disability and your experiences don’t count.” In no way am I trying to say we should shut Special Olympics down. I do not hate anyone associated with Special Olympics, and as noted, I have supported them, if naively so. This post is not about tearing anybody down–it’s about questioning what we as a society do in the efforts to build people up.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s stop tiptoeing around the issues, because there is an issue here. Many people, myself included, are now questioning how beneficial Special Olympics actually is. It’s not really “special”; many disability advocates, and those outside advocacy, see it as a sacred cow of segregation. While not meant as such, Special Olympics keeps people with disabilities out of the mainstream athletic arena. You must have a disability to participate; if you don’t, you can’t. This deprives athletes with disabilities of the chance to compete with peers of all levels. It also reinforces the idea they can only succeed at activities designed exclusively for their “special needs.” Unintentionally, the focus shifts away from the individual, his or her success, and his or her true abilities. The focus becomes, “These people have different needs, so they must be held to different standards.” (Note here that I’m not talking about modifications–I’m talking about an entirely separate and exclusive setup).

Problems Beyond Segregation

Writers like Keith Storey and Lawrence Downes of The New York Times have pointed to segregation as a major issue, but there are several others we must examine. Many people, especially those who support Special Olympics, aren’t aware of them. Let’s take a quick look at each one now.

  • There are no winners. In Special Olympics, losses are never recorded. If someone loses a race or event, it is never announced or even mentioned. In his 2015 report on the Special Olympics World Games, Lawrence Downes revealed most events are designed so that multiple athletes can win. Medal ceremonies stretch for hours on end.

I can hear detractors now: “Are you saying you want athletes with disabilities to lose?” Well, yes, if they legitimately lost. Special Olympics is ostensibly set up so there are no losers. But athletic competition presupposes winners and losers. You’re not a bad person if you lose. It doesn’t mean you didn’t try. But if nobody keeps score, if everyone wins, there are no winners, either.

So what’s the real message here? You got it: People with disabilities shouldn’t lose/can’t handle losing. People with disabilities need to win, but we’ll do that in such a way that eliminates the spirit of athleticism. Nobody loses, but nobody wins. So the real message of Special Olympics is: people with disabilities are losers.

  • Inspiration porn abounds. I’d go so far as to call Special Olympics a hotbed, the mother of all inspiration porn avenues. For example, temporarily able-bodied people are hired to hug athletes at the finish line of every race or event. Now, I like to hug as much as the next person, but let’s be real here. If I’m tired and sweaty from putting all my effort into some athletic event, I don’t want a total stranger to hug me, pat me on the head, or say something like, “Go! Go! Good for trying!”

And yet, that’s what happens. Lawrence Downes describes the World Games medal ceremonies as “teary,” with people beaming, crying, and hugging the whole time. Athletes getting hugged by total strangers. People without disabilities applauding them for completing events designed to be much easier than they should be. No wonder people go out and ask for donations. No wonder Special Olympics is all over the media. It’s inspiration porn. The message seems to be, “If J.J. with Down Syndrome can run in a race, maybe I can become the next Wall Street tycoon! If Danielle’s intellectual disability doesn’t stop her from throwing a ball, maybe I can write a bestseller!” Cut it out, people. Cut the crap. You’re using your fellow humans, which brings me to:

  • Special Olympics is only for people with intellectual disabilities. This goes back to segregation, but in a way, it’s its own issue. I would argue that more than other PWDs, people with intellectual disabilities are heavily marginalized. These are your fellow citizens with intellect-affecting autism, Fragile X, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Effects, you name it. As William Matthews points out, these people were shut away from society for decades, even centuries. They are the ones most often hit with the R word and other slurs. They, more than other PWDs, are the ones stigmatized and seen as what other people never want to be. Special Olympics only serves them, and as we’ll see in the next point, it does not serve them well. Yes, it’s unintentional, but Special Olympics actually marginalizes PWIDs more. In fact, the images most often associated with Special Olympics play up intellectual disabilities, especially those with visible features, to increase public relations.
  • Special Olympics does not actively serve the people they claim to care about and want to include. I could spend a separate post on this point alone, but I’m going to try to condense. Special Olympics says its efforts are aimed at ending exclusion for people with disabilities, and helping them move toward better futures. That’s all well and good, but here’s the truth.
    • According to various studies done within the past decade, 90% of children and young adults with intellectual disabilities are still denied educations and basic healthcare. Many Special Olympics participants struggle with long-term and chronic health problems. While Special Olympics has a program aimed at those health problems, it is not meant to teach PWDs to take care of their own health. It is instead aimed at educating doctors who, Special Olympics implies, will almost certainly see participants as their patients one day. Message? “For this one moment, this person with a disability is an ‘athlete,’ but never forget, he or she is sick or ‘broken.'”
    • Many, many corporations donate to or “partner with” Special Olympics, but they do not hire persons with disabilities to work for them. Lawrence Downes writes the reason Special Olympics is so happy is because athletes and their families “need that moment of happiness before they go home and [become] invisible again.” At the end of the day, the vast majority of these athletes will still have no jobs, little education, little access to public life, and little understanding. They may not be sent away to draconian institutions like Willowbrook State School anymore, but they are still segregated in special schools, at home with their parents/guardians, in group homes, etc. The very TAB people who claim to love and support PWDs, especially those with intellectual disabilities, are not partnering to truly help them or provide long-term solutions. Take this with a grain of salt, because we all fall under this at times, but: those corporations? They’re full of hypocrites.
    • The people running Special Olympics, while benevolently intentioned, are hypocrites. As of 2015, only two of their board members had disabilities. Two. As in, the decision-makers are still the temporarily able-bodied. The message hasn’t changed: You are disabled. We are not. We are in control, not you. You can’t make decisions. You can’t think for yourself. Your thoughts are invalid.
  • Special Olympics does not encourage PWDs to move forward. It doesn’t encourage the face of disability and how we think about it to change. Special Olympics’ original focus was to provide athletic opportunities to people with disabilities, to get them fit, get them out in public, and make them feel like champions. On some level, they have succeeded. William Matthews and other athletes like him proudly call themselves champions, and they have a right to do that. I’m not trying to steal happiness from anyone here.

But I will challenge what Special Olympics has become all day, because it doesn’t provide any long-term solutions for people with intellectual disabilities. It puts decisions and service delivery out of PWDs’ hands. It focuses on giving people one brief, shining moment once a year or so–a “high” they can live off on the days they feel invisible.

Special Olympics does not encourage people with disabilities to keep moving forward. It doesn’t affirm their rights, or work with communities to provide real opportunities. Instead, the message is: You exist, but it’s primarily for others’ benefit. You are an inspiration, but we decide how and when you will inspire us. Special Olympics, as it now exists, is harmful to disability rights. If changes were made, maybe that wouldn’t be the case–for one thing, can we start by admitting there are winners and losers? Can we end the segregation?

Will those changes be made? I don’t know. Making them would shoot a hole in the status quo. Many people would scream over an opportunity being taken from PWDs. But really, what kind of opportunity is it? Shouldn’t we rethink what we’re doing and saying?

I don’t expect this will be my most popular post. I’m sure I’ll get at least one comment informing me I am a ____ing, ____-ety ____ asshole. But you know what? That’s fine, because I learned my lesson the hard way. I’d rather see others learn it the easy way.

Special Olympics may always exist–and to tell you the truth, I’m kind of okay with that–but not as it exists now. We’ve got to make some changes, people, starting with the way we seek to make PWDs feel “special.” They don’t want “special” anymore. It’s not 1968 anymore. It’s 2017, and I for one want revolution. I want revelations. I want real opportunities, accomplishment, and success.

Now, that’s worth carrying a torch for, wouldn’t you say?



  1. I’m half tempted to say the same thing about the Best Buddies organization. Seeing as how it was created with the same intentions as Special Olympics( having TAB kids being ” friends with SWDs) along with same drawbacks. (PWDs being treated like charity projects)

    Another problem with the athletes getting hugs from total strangers?-Aside from the obvious that it’s blatantly condescending-Is that it can make them easy targets for sexual assault.

  2. Amen, on so many levels. Also, nice to know I’m not the only one questioning these traditional programs. Someone once suggested I get involved in Special Olympics and Best Buddies; I didn’t know why at the time, but I was immediately insulted. But then, you can’t say that because then it’s like, “You want nothing to do with those poor intellectually disabled people.” Which makes me want to say, “Thank you for defining the problem–and it’s not mine!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s