For much of the past handful of years, Special Olympics Southern California President/CEO Bill Shumard has left the staff a simple, gentle reminder.
What got us here, won’t take us there.
In many ways, that type of approach can explain how an organization celebrating its 50-year anniversary has evolved and continued to make an impact in the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Globally, Special Olympics impacts more than 5.1 million people in 174 countries through opportunities in sports. In Southern California, there are more than 37,800 athletes. As recently as 2017, SOSC revamped its competition calendar to allow for more of its athletes to compete in more sports year-round. Currently, the selection for SOSC athletes includes basketball, bocce, flag football, swimming, and track and field in the spring; a standalone bowling season in the summer; golf, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball in the fall; and a standalone floor hockey season in the winter. By 2020, cheerleading (currently in a demonstration period) will be added as an official sport in Southern California.
However, sports have been just the introduction to a wide array of breakthroughs that may not have otherwise been made available to the athletes and their families.
When SOSC was still putting together the building blocks under the name California Special Olympics in 1969, the athletes and their intellectual disabilities were stigmatized with out-of-date terminology and treatment that would not fly in 2019. They were deemed irreparable and counted out without being afforded a proper chance to contribute to society.
By the 1990s, those same athletes were given the tools to become Global Messengers, trained in public speaking to help spread an inclusive message and represent a vision of what’s possible. Now, the new normal is hearing of athletes who balance school, sometimes even a job, and their participation in Special Olympics. There are athletes who are invited to local speaking engagements, some who help advocate for funding directly with lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and the extraordinary who sit on panels at the United Nations.
From a health perspective, there’s been just as much of a night-and-day shift.
An individual with intellectual disabilities is often denied health services and dies, on average, 16 years sooner than the general population. Special Olympics Health, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, and in the U.S. in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is combating that statistic. It’s that access to care and health services that also makes it more likely for the athletes to pursue opportunities in education, employment and, of course, sports.
The past two decades, in particular, have resulted in collaborations with healthcare providers, community organizations, universities and governments. Locally, in April 2018, that translated into a three-year agreement with Kaiser Permanente Southern California as the “Official Health Partner” of SOSC. At competitions throughout the year, Healthy Athletes stations – screenings for auditory, dental, fitness, health promotion, optometry and podiatry services – are often filled by volunteer students from various local universities. Services available also include an 8-to-10-week Team Wellness course to promote the importance of healthy eating habits.
Most important of all, these health screenings and lessons come at no cost to the families.
In fact, all of the services provided – whether it be participation, transportation, etc. – are free for the athletes. That’s made possible by a mix of partnerships and fundraising events. The largest grassroots fundraiser for Special Olympics is the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which started in 1981 and has raised more than $500 million worldwide. In Southern California, that includes more than 3,500 officers from 200+ law enforcement agencies who helped raise more than $1.5 million in 2018.
Looking ahead, the future looks just as bright – and it starts with the next generation.
Special Olympics’ dedication to promoting social inclusion has received a boost from Unified Sports, which joins individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team for training and competition. High-profile organizations such as the NBA and Major League Soccer have joined in the inclusion revolution.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the movement is in schools. In 2008, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools was formed, and now more than 4,500 elementary, middle schools and high schools in the U.S. and 215 colleges and universities are engaged in Unified Sports, clubs or activities. Awareness is raised through school functions such as the Spread the Word campaign, formerly known as the R-Word campaign, which urges people to take a pledge to end the use of derogatory language and create a new, more inclusive reality.
As of July 2018, Special Olympics Southern California Unified Champion Schools partnerships included 22 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, 50 high schools, three school districts and three universities.
It’s that next generation, being brought up in a world that continues to strive for more inclusion, that will help decide what those next steps are to take us there.
Inside the SOSC is a blog managed by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.