This year all of us who are part of the Special Olympics movement are proudly celebrating our 50th anniversary, and it is well worth remembering that our origins were during a divisive time in our nation’s history when people with intellectual disabilities were routinely institutionalized and rejected from society all together. It was a time when these people were assumed incompetent and without value. Nevertheless, average Americans set out to change that.
Thousands and then millions of Americans came together and welcomed people with intellectual disabilities onto the fields of sport and play. At a time when these people were seen to be incapable of learning, average Americans used the power of sports to teach the big lesson: that everyone has a gift and everyone deserves dignity. These are exactly the values promoted today through Special Olympics’ schools programs, and those are exactly the values that vast majorities of Americans want our athletes to help teach today.
Though much progress had been made since our founding, we needed leadership to make it possible for our work in schools to be recognized and to grow, so in 2004, then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt was the lead sponsor of legislation to build a state of the art school-based program to teach the power of inclusion. We now call those schools Unified Champion Schools, and there are more than 200 in Missouri today.
Our Unified Champion Schools proudly support and strengthen the efforts of the U.S. Department of Education’s mission to promote inclusion and reduce bullying at a time when our young people are hungry for a new direction away from division and hate. The work of these schools is not only to promote equality and dignity for students with intellectual disabilities, but also to change school cultures, to improve school spirit and to promote social cohesion for all students, faculty and staff. The most visible element of our model is the Unified Sports program, where students of all backgrounds become teammates creating waves of openness and trust. It is a parent’s dream to see their children treated with respect and value.
The United States has committed itself to inclusion for disadvantaged people since our founding, and we need to stay the course, particularly where people with ID are concerned. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush further committed our nation to the ideals of inclusion by signing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination of our fellow citizens based on disability. Though the ADA has helped enormously, from Kansas City to Perryville, Missouri, our children, siblings, neighbors and friends often still stand at society’s margins, and they depend on us to sustain the momentum for change.
Bullying, humiliation, discrimination, isolation, a lack of educational and employment opportunities — these are everyday realities for millions of our students and athletes. Their inclusion is a matter of justice, and justice is a federal priority enshrined in law to protect, defend and advance the empowerment of students with disabilities.
Our movement is dedicated to the mission of inclusion and we are lucky that Missouri’s own Sen. Roy Blunt is on our side. He knows that sports are at the heart of what we do, and that we provide a critical range of education, health, and leadership development programs to empower the whole person to reach their full potential. He also knows that people with intellectual disabilities are the greatest leaders, champions and teachers of inclusion. Moreover, he knows that they can help us overcome the fear of difference, and that their capacity to lead starts in our schools. For these reasons and many others, Sen. Blunt has become our strongest champion in Congress.
At a time when we need less talk and more action, it should be no surprise that the senior senator from the Show-Me State is doing just that.
Timothy P. Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics.