Special Olympics at 50

Last summer I went to the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics.

By coincidence, Chicago’s annual Disability Pride Parade is taking place on the same day as the celebration at Soldier Field. The parade moves through the Loop, up Dearborn Street to Daley Plaza, with floats and dance routines and a diverse group of marchers in terms of disabilities, race, class, and gender identity. Here, the calls for revolution are as unapologetic as the loud music. Every leader present identifies as disabled, and almost everyone behind a table handing out fliers or registering people to vote is visibly disabled. Their plan isn’t to hope for goodwill, but to demand change. The conversations are about resisting police brutality in black communities, pushing state governments to stop incarcerating disabled folks, and advocating around core issues of food, housing, and employment insecurity. 

If officials at the Special Olympics really want to lead an “inclusion revolution,” they are somehow going to have to connect to this broader, feisty community without losing their ability to appeal to mainstream, often quite culturally conservative, audiences. That challenge lies ahead. 

Here’s what we can say for now: The soccer was amazing. The teams exemplified fully integrated microcommunities. If that’s the kind of environment that the Special Olympics is fostering, it’s a good change, and one that’s long overdue. 

Down near the center of Soldier Field, I find Anne Burke, the former P.E. teacher and now Illinois Supreme Court justice, talking to a camera crew. She’s a slender, elderly woman making her way eagerly from event to event, pausing to take pictures with anyone who asks. I ask what she thinks about the shift to Unified Sports. She replies: “Isn’t that what we want to do in the whole world? These children don’t want to be special anymore; they want equality.”

Leave a Reply