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The Ruderman Family Foundation is dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in society. While the Special Olympics is focusing on community inclusion of their athletes, the venue they provide for athletic competition is only open to those with intellectual disabilities. Just by the sound of it, it’s not hard to see why these approaches- and perhaps our organizations- appear opposed to one another. However, I recently watched a TED Talk with Special Olympics veteran Matthew Williams that may have changed my perspective on that initial diagnosis.
This Canadian native- now a Special Olympics International Sargent Shriver Global Messenger and member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors- illustrated the profound social impact that Special Olympics and sport had on his life; from struggling to fit in and keep up with his peers to helping him make friends and providing the self-confidence he desperately desired. It was from this that I thought to myself, even if I disagree with the methodology (promoting an event in which only people with intellectual disabilities may compete), at the end of the day Williams found inclusion and acceptance though this event. I think in this case it’s important to examine the transformational impact sports can have on peoples’ lives.
Sports have a very unique place in our society. As children (and even as adults) we idolize the athletes who throw the 4th quarter touchdowns, score the 90th minute goals and hit the walk-off home runs. We play these games to mimic the superheroes we see on TV and because of the universal outlet it provides for people of all walks of life. Race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation and other factors that may divide us or limit our contact disappear on the playing surface and are replaced with camaraderie and the drive to succeed as a unit and as individuals. It is an artificial yet equally real space for us to physically and emotionally grow, to learn about ourselves and the world around us, to test boundaries and define new limits.
But can sports have this same unifying impact of all-inclusiveness when it comes to ability? Sports are already (necessarily) divided among able-bodied individuals. This is done by age, gender, weight, education level and even among those who share all of the aforementioned features. For example, there are skilled junior high school students who would be better off playing basketball at the high school level but are denied the choice because of an arbitrary number such as grade level or being born at the beginning of one month versus another. The same could be said about a 9th grade student who hasn’t started growing yet. If they could gain a more positive, competitive and unifying experience playing for the 8th grade squad, why is that opportunity not available?
I think to ultimately answer the question of inclusion and sport, we have to look to people like Matthew Williams. What is the purpose of playing? What is the purpose of playing in a particular environment? When we address the issue the way he did- to develop positive self-identity, to compete, to mature, to be healthy, to feel included, to be recognized, to represent something greater than oneself- which is many of the same reasons we already encourage our own youth to participate in sport, it becomes easier to see why this activity can act as a gateway to inclusion and belonging. Even if the medium may not be the most inclusive.