As many of you know, April is National Autism Awareness Month. Here in the upstate of South Carolina, it’s also the month that the annual Special Olympics are held on the campus of Furman University, and every year without fail I’m there to cheer on my son as he competes in various events. Every year that is until this one. Wednesday Wills will be out there at Furman enjoying himself as he always does, and I can’t wait to see how he does (his record so far is 2 silver medals and a bronze); but I’m afraid that I’ve missed too much work as a result of being diagnosed with seminoma and everything that entails. So the most I’ll be able to do this year is walk with him in the grand parade that opens the festivities.
Of course, everyone knows of the Special Olympics; but I wonder sometimes how many people really understand all that the Special Olympics have done for special needs children like my son, both here and around the world! Indeed, while I hope you dear reader are not one of them, I’ve met a remarkable number of people who don’t even know who started them or how they came to be. So forgive me as I break out my “absent minded professor” glasses and tweed coat for a brief little ramble through history.
Even as recently as the late 50’s and early 60’s, people just didn’t admit that handicapped people even existed; especially those with intellectual disabilities, a.k.a the mentally retarded. And not just those who would be recognized as such today, but anyone that didn’t meet society’s vision of what was mentally “normal”. It didn’t matter whether the person was “retarded”, suffered from Down’s Syndrome, had had an undiagnosed stroke as an infant, or was autistic like Wills. They were all considered to be mentally retarded! Then along came Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy. You see, she also had a sister who suffered from intellectual disabilities and so she started to pay attention to the way such people were treated by society, and what she saw disturbed her greatly. Anyone who was noticeably different was hidden away, often in some institution or another; but all too many, including untold numbers of children were dumped out on the streets without even a place to stay. Largely thanks to her efforts, the John F Kennedy Foundation was formed to try to find ways to treat and prevent intellectual disabilities and slowly things started to change. Then, in the summer of 1962, Mrs. Shriver held a day camp at her home farm, Timberlawn and from there summer camps for the intellectually disabled spread to major cities across the country, helped at least in part by Mrs. Shriver revealing that her sister was intellectualled disabled in an article in the “Saturday Evening Post”. With the publishing of the startling fact that the President actually had a sister who was “Mentally Retarded”, suddenly it wasn’t as socially unacceptable any more. And so it went through out the 60’s with Eunice Shriver bringing in more and more experts, all the while turning public perception of the problem on its head until finally, in March of 1968, she announced that the first “Olympic styled” games for people with intellectual disabilities would be held in cooperation with the Chicago Park District. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today there’s not a state in American, nor an industrialized Nation that doesn’t have some form of the Special Olympics.
So what does all this mean to us in today’s world? For starters, it gives those with any kind of disability a chance to actually compete with one another on a field where their handicaps are not considered to be a big deal. What’s more, the Special Olympics are organized very much like the Olympic Games that they see everyone getting excited about every 4 years, right down to a set of relay runners bringing in a torch to light the flames on the central tower at the heart of the event. A parade of nations? We have the Grand Parade, the Parade of Schools and the reciting of the Special Olympic motto: Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. Mark Spitz? Mary Lou Retton? Pffttt. Mere pikers. They couldn’t have won anything at our games! If you have never been there to actually interact with these special kids as they compete with all their heart and soul, you have no idea how much this day means to each and every one of them. For on this day, they are not the outcasts. They are not the forgotten ones who no one wants on their teams, the ones all too often picked on and laughed at by the normal kids behind the teachers’ backs. No, on this day they are champions, each and every one! And they know that if they did not win, that they at least competed with courage and bravery the equal of any Congressional Medal of Honor winner and be proud of that fact. And what’s more, they know that their parents, their brothers and sister, and yes, even their class mates are proud of them too; and oh, what a difference that makes.
And this dear reader is what I will be missing this year. Because my body has failed me in a way I could never have predicted, for the first time in nearly 10 years I will not be there to see Wills compete. To see the happy grin on his face as he runs the 50 yards dash, or hear his infectious laugh as he throws a ball as far as he can. To feel the utter concentration as he prepares to jump the long jump. But I will be there to walk with him as he and his classmates make the long march in the Grand Parade even if I must leave immediately afterwards. And I will be there when he gets home, as anxious to see his medals and ribbons as he will be excited to show them off to both his mother and I. And with this I can be content, for I know with all my heart and all my soul, this will be the only year I will miss this thrilling event that means so much to my son no matter what may come my way. As long as Wills continues to compete, I will be there for him.
But for now dear reader, another of my rambles must come to a close. And so I wish you pleasant skies and fair weather along your journey until next we meet in this, my little corner of cyber space. And remember, anything that’s worth doing is worth doing with attitude!