Special Olympics - One team, unified, indivisible

Brookline TAB, April 1, 2009

President Obama’s recent Special Olympics faux pas has lately occupied my thoughts, not because I am angry at him — well, at first I was — but mostly because I wanted so badly to make him understand what Special Olympics is.

It’s complicated to explain to others why Special Olympics works so well. People think they get it; I’m sure the president thought he did. But then you see that sometimes, they still don’t.

I am often trying to figure out why Special Olympics is more than just “everyone gets a medal.” I went to see our Brookline/Boston teams play basketball at the Winter Games, thinking I would finally be able to articulate what Special Olympics really is. Why is that so important to me? I think it’s because before I had a kid with a disability, I didn’t get it, either. I didn’t want to think about the disabled; I didn’t even want to look at them.

But now that I have Nat, I don’t want anyone to dismiss him. I don’t want them to think there is nothing there but someone to be pitied, or patted on the head. Or worse: March 31 was, after all, “Spread the Word to End the Word” Day, meaning, “ban the use of the word ‘retard’ from American colloquial language.”

As much as I am in the know about cognitive disability and Special Olympics, I was surprised to discover something I did not know: There are nondisabled teammates in Special Olympics! When I first found out that my son’s team had “unified” (nondisabled) players, my first reaction was to mistrust it. How could it work? How fair could it be? Wouldn’t the unified players always score, and the “special” players just occupy space on the court?

But I had never observed a unified team before. First of all, the unified players are nonscoring teammates. Mostly what I saw them do was to get the ball up and down the court and pass it to an athlete (a disabled teammate) who would then try to score. My son’s teammates are far more interested in simply shooting baskets than dribbling and running after the ball. Once I understood the system, it seemed pretty good.

I noticed that the unified players were more aggressive than the athletes, but it all worked perfectly. They would try to get the ball from the other team, slapping it out of an opponent’s hands. Then they would call out for one of the special athletes, pass the ball to him, and the athlete would try to score.

As I watched, I was struck by the thought that here before me was a true moment of inclusion. Here we had the unified volunteers: skilled basketball players, running side-by-side with the disabled athletes, some of whom are hunched and ancient, barely able to throw the ball, much less make a basket.

There was one such teammate on the other team. When he caught the ball, he tried limply to score once, twice, again and yet again, while everyone stood and watched. The unifieds kept passing him the ball. No one moved. Even my otherwise blasé teenage son, Max, whispered to me, “I sooo want that guy to get a basket.”

Well, the guy didn’t, but it didn’t matter. Everyone was talking about “that old guy. Wow.” That guy was the greatest example of an athlete: trying his hardest, risking his pride, dealing with the consequences and graciously moving on.

Which makes me wonder: If we are truly looking to fulfill the president’s vision of a diverse and socially responsible society, why aren’t more teams like the unified ones? Why can’t every league in town also ask for unified volunteers to play in a Special Olympics league? All we need is people to start more partnerships the way we have done with our basketball teams here. The only costs are the time of volunteers, the space to practice, the energy to stage competitions. Such a partnership is one of the things Brookline does best. Witness the examples of the Brookline Education Foundation and the Town-School Parternship.

Such partnerships like the unified players of Special Olympics are truly a model for an inclusive society — here in Brookline and nationwide. President Obama understood inclusion and difference when he won the election; I’ll be he understands it even more now. We can all learn from his mistake, and take new notice of those we may have overlooked. The rewards for all of us are good for the heart — in every sense of the word.