Nothing special | Guest Opinion

At a recent strategic planning conference for organizations that serve people with developmental conditions, our facilitator asked us to imagine that we wake up tomorrow and find that every obstacle to our work has been overcome, every problem solved, every battle victorious at last.  What does the  world look like now, she asked?

Of the many hopeful answers offered by the group, perhaps the most poignant was one colleague’s passionate desire to purge the term “special” from our lexicon. No more special education. No more special needs. No more special anything. No separate world for people whose way of experiencing life and whose way of knowing are different from ours. After all, what education isn’t special? What child doesn’t have special needs? Who doesn’t need love and support and encouragement to thrive?

In this sense there is nothing special about being labeled “special,” a term that can be just as hurtful and harmful as other labels commonly reviled for their brutality. It has been the core issue in every civil rights movement in our history — for people of color, for women, for gay people, and now for people with developmental conditions — to be branded as not-like-us and therefore inferior.

This really got me thinking again about my experience as a guest at the opening ceremonies of Special Olympics recent summer games. Yes, Special Olympics is “special” in the sense that it is unique, that it is an experience dedicated for the most part to people with developmental conditions, and therefore perhaps isolating in a way. But Special Olympics is also special in every gloriously positive sense of the word. It is a celebration of life and hope and fun and affirmation that those of us who are not special enough to participate can only envy.

The opening ceremonies took place in a massive aircraft hangar at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It looked like a college graduation scene with thousands of white folding chairs facing a stage festooned with flowers and balloons and fluttering banners. Soon the triumphal music of the Olympic Games announced the arrival of the athletes, and in they marched single file — all 2,500 of them — resplendent in their team uniforms and wearing smiles that outshone the sun, every last one of them.

The stream of athletes split before the podium with half seated in the west section of the hangar and half in the east where I had a front-row seat. Of the 1,250 athletes that passed by me in that joyous procession, at least 1,240 gave me a high five as they passed, beaming with pride at our applause, cheers, whistles, and words of encouragement.  Interspersed with the athletes were coaches, brothers and sisters, and parents, many of whom looked at me gratefully as they passed by and mouthed the words “thank you” through the din, many with tears in their eyes.

What a powerful experience!  And what powerfully contradictory emotions it triggered in me. Such events are very special in the sense that every one of us has something to offer that flourishes when others encourage us and believe in us. I couldn’t help but think that so-called “normal” people were missing out on an amazing extravaganza of pure joy and energy, especially after the bluegrass band got all 2,500 athletes up and dancing — walkers, crutches, and braces twirling and waving with the music

As the mayor of a nearby city told the assembled athletes, “The world needs you, it needs your energy and optimism.” Which of course is exactly why organizations like ours work so hard to integrate people of all abilities into the classrooms, workplaces, and social life of our community.

Celebrations like this are unique moments in the lives of the athletes, exceptions that prove the rule — a rule that involves 70 percent unemployment rates for people with disabilities; continuous battles with bureaucracy, isolation, and disrespect; and staggering funding cuts for essential support services. Yet no athlete I ever coached in nearly two decades of Little League, middle school, high school, and select club sports ever exuded such pure joy and energy. No parent ever thanked me tearfully, overcome with gratitude. They expected their child to play, they expected their child to be coached well, and they expected their child to succeed.

It is so often those facing daunting challenges who are grateful for what ought to be, who appreciate what is so special about every human being, and who share that wisdom with the rest of us.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center.  Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.



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