WASHINGTON — On a rainy Saturday morning, in the packed gym at the Blessed Sacrament School in Northwest Washington, a parade of middle and high school basketball players, many with Down syndrome or autism, follow behind the tinfoil torch of the Special Olympics. As each athlete is introduced and cheered, he or she basks, with high fives and blown kisses, at the center of attention for all the right reasons. (Overheard from the mother of one player: “He lives for this day,” but also that, in the past, it has brought on an anxiety attack.)
Feeling the pleasing thwack of a rubber ball on hardwood is a nearly universal American experience. In the process of making it even more universal, Special Olympics varies the game a bit. It includes more than the usual share of interruptions, hugs, hand-holding and random dancing. The players tend to be transparent, unencumbered.
Students without disabilities also participate, setting up shots for the Special Olympics athletes, whose abilities vary widely. Some have little hope of a basket; the crowd cheers when they rise after falling. Others score when the referee allows a few extra tries. Others are determined and well-practiced, displaying unsuspected skills. One athlete will only take shots from near the 3-point line. When he finally makes one, the crowd responds with Final Four intensity.
By giving opportunities to those with intellectual disabilities, we discover what interests them. This includes sporting competition — and the inalienable right to put on a skirt and lead cheers. At halftime, the Joy cheerleading squad performance includes some impressive splits. The sight of young women with Down syndrome and other disabilities breaking the cheerleading barrier is no longer unusual. It is still better than Beyonce.
Special Olympics athletes take an oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Real bravery is rare on the main stages of sport. It was common in a suburban gym on a Saturday morning.
Because of the Special Olympics movement, the striving of disabled athletes and the pride of their parents are now familiar. But they are remarkable in historical context. Just a few decades ago, children with intellectual disabilities were subject to vast, systematic cruelty. Those with Down syndrome were often placed in institutions before parents could “bond with them,” denied surgery for heart problems and intestinal blockages, and targeted for eugenic sterilization.
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