The Special Olympics
The Special Olympics
A backyard summer camp may seem to some to be the unlikely place to launch a worldwide revolution of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. However, this is the origin story of the Special Olympics movement.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver was not just a concerned citizen; she was a sister of someone with intellectual disabilities. She knew firsthand the pain of the exclusion faced by people with disabilities and their families. However, she had also grown up playing sports with her sister and knew how the simple act of play could be a powerful platform to empower and include.
From this humble beginning, Special Olympics has become the largest grassroots disability sports organization in the world. Over the last 50 years, Special Olympics has developed to include programs in over 190 countries and territories and now has six million athletes training and competing around the world.
The strength of the Special Olympics movement is woven into the oath taken by athletes before they compete: ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ It is understood most vividly in the stories of athletes themselves. 23-year-old Emanuelle Dutra Fernandes de Souza faced many serious obstacles early in her childhood – some so serious that it threatened to exclude her from the rich community life of her native Brazil.
“When I was 2 years old, I had seizure that left me in a coma for a week. After I got back home my parents noticed that I was having difficulties in walking and talking, so doctors recommended my parents to move to a calmer place where I could avail more therapy. My parents left everything behind in Rio de Janeiro where we used to live, so we could move to a smaller city three hours away.”
But Emanuelle’s family continued to struggle to find the right therapy and supports for their daughter.
“It was hard for me and many people for many people with disabilities in Brazil to find therapy and support. I was shy and had a hard time talking to people. In 2013, Special Olympics Brazil came to my city to do a Coach Training and they invited the local NGO my mother founded to demonstrate a football match. After this training and becoming involved in Special Olympics, my life completely changed.”
Emanuelle’s introduction to the world of Special Olympics unleashed a new-found sense of confidence in the football loving young woman. Soon she was competing at major sporting competitions and enjoying the types of opportunities that so often are denied to people with disabilities.
“Sports to me is everything. It is a tool for inclusion. Unified Sports, Special Olympics’ inclusive sports program, changes the vision of those that have not yet had a chance to have close contact with people with intellectual disabilities and therefore don't really know what we are capable of.
“In 2014, I participated in the Special Olympics Brazil National Games and earned the gold medal and the opportunity to represent my country at the Special Olympics 2015 World Games in Los Angeles on a Unified Football team, made of teammates with and without intellectual disabilities. At these Games we won a bronze medal. In 2018 I also competed at the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Unified Cup in Chicago, where we earned a silver medal. Every time I have participated on a Unified Team, I have felt that we have had a real conversation and exchanged of knowledge that we usually don't have the opportunity to do. We had to help each other on and off the field. I felt included and I didn't feel judged for being myself.”
Emanuelle not only became a successful athlete, but also an empowered leader both on and off the sports field. The Special Olympics movement strives to be not just for people with intellectual disabilities, but from them. The Special Olympics Athlete Leadership program helps athletes develop their skills to be advocates and take on leadership roles in the organization.
“In 2018 I also I participated at the Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan and was selected as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger to represent Latin America region. Since then, I have given speeches at the Special Olympics World Games as a Global Messenger and have also spoken on a panel at the United Nations about inclusion in sports and the workplace.”
A multi-country study has shown that participating in Unified Sports helped 79% of participants without disabilities to develop deeper understanding of their peers with disabilities. Further, 87% of athletes with intellectual disabilities report feeling better and more confident about themselves after participating in Unified Sports. These positive attitudes towards disability inclusion and soft skills like self-confidence are critical to take from the playing field into all aspects of society.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals have committed the global community to “Leave No One Behind”. However, for people with disabilities, serious attitude barriers persist. Negative attitudes towards disability are codified into discriminatory laws and translated into exclusionary practices that impact all sectors, from education to health to decent work opportunities.
Emanuele’s story provides one striking example of how sport can be such an effective vehicle to break down these barriers.
“Sports to me is everything. It is a tool for inclusion. I feel that I matter because Special Olympics has shown me abilities that I didn't know I had, Special Olympics believed in me and made me believe in myself, gave me a platform to speak and to be heard, gave me courage, confidence, self-esteem, a voice through sport and leadership.”
Emanuelle Dutra Fernandes de Souza is also a Special Olympics athlete from Brazil. She plays football and beach volleyball and has won numerous medals at competitions from the local to international level. She is a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger for Special Olympics and works as an administrative assistant in a human resources department.
Meghan Hussey is Senior Manager of Global Youth and Education Programming at Special Olympics International Headquarters in Washington DC. In her role, Meghan is primarily responsible for growing partnerships with governments, NGOs, and research institutions to promote inclusive development through sport in the education and youth sectors around the world.