Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Special Olympics: Helping Build a Community

by Trent Weir 
Algonquin College Sport Business Management Intern

Special Olympics Canada is an organization that looks to improve the well being of individuals with intellectual disabilities through sport. With over 35 thousand participants across the country, Special Olympics distinguishes itself from other sports organizations by encouraging people of all abilities to participate.

In order to participate in Special Olympics, an individual must be identified by an agency or professional as having an intellectual disability based on three criteria:
  1. Intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75; 
  2. Significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skill areas; and 
  3. The condition manifests itself before the age of 18. 
The real benefit of Special Olympics does not come from the competitions it creates but the friendships it helps develop. Whether the athlete is training to compete at the provincial, national and international level or just playing basketball once a week for fun, the social impact for participants is phenomenal. Athletes are provided the opportunity to interact with their peers within the community and foster relationships with coaches, volunteers or referees. These relationships are so important because it can be difficult for people with intellectual disabilities, at times, to find opportunities to interact socially outside of a school or day program setting.

The community created is not just of benefit for the athletes but for their parents as well. Being able to meet other parents who are struggling with many of the same issues can be therapeutic during difficult times. With the public understanding of diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome continually growing, parents are able to discuss and share methods that have helped their families and how these have worked for them.

This community that Special Olympics fosters is full of inspirational people. One such example is Susie Doyens, a woman with Down syndrome who was non-verbal for most of her life. She would only speak to her mother and even then, just a few words. However once she started playing golf with Special Olympics, her confidence began to grow. Eventually, she was asked to become a spokesperson for Special Olympics and has done many public speeches to different audiences regarding her experience.

These stories are not uncommon and if you ask almost any parent, sibling or friend of a participant of Special Olympics, you will hear a similar story about how valuable the experience has been for the athlete. Other sport organizations could learn a lot from the Special Olympics on how to encourage community and personal growth, while still providing the opportunity for elite competition. The Special Olympics’ motto is something every athlete should follow: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”.

References from the SIRC Collection:

1. Chenevert M, Pierce T, Block M, One Shining Moment for One Special Class: Special Olympics Challenge Day in Casper. WY. Palaestra. March 2012;26(2):19-22. 
2. Conatser P, Naugle K, Tillman M, Stopka C. Athletic Trainers’ Beliefs Toward Working With Special Olympics Athletes. Journal Of Athletic Training. May 2009;44(3):279-285. 
3. Doyens S, Adler M, Croslin B. Competing Is The Most Fun Thing I Do. Golf Digest. January 2013;64(1):50. 
4. Harada C, Siperstein G. The Sport Experience of Athletes With Intellectual Disabilities: A National Survey of Special Olympic Athletes and Their Families. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly.January 2009;26(1):68-85. 
5. Krtnick K. The Road less traveled: Division III and Special Olympics partnership paves way to Final Four. NCAA NEWS. April 3, 2013;:2. 
6. Petti S. Special Olympics Canada: enriching lives through sport. Coaches Plan/Plan Du Coach. Summer2009 2009;16(2):85-87. 
7. Wilski M, Nadolska A, Dowling S, Mcconkey R, Hassan D. Personal development of participants in special Olympics unified sports teams. Human Movement. October 2012;13(3):271-279.

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