“No matter what boundaries someone has, or disabilities someone has, sports has this tendency to bring people together,” said Special Olympics Indiana public relations and marketing manager Duchess Adjei.
Special Olympics has allowed athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete since 1968. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, started the organization because she recognized how unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated.
“We believe, and Mrs. Shriver believed, a person is worthy of a chance and ought to be cheered for once in their life,” said Special Olympics Indiana President and CEO Michael Furnish.
Furnish also said volunteers make the biggest difference the athletes’ lives, but it may be the volunteers who are most affected by the experience.
“The thing that makes the single biggest difference in the lives of our athletes, is people getting involved with them,” said Furnish. “But the change almost always takes place most with the volunteers – who, after a little bit of time in the water or the basketball court, realize there’s almost no difference in us. The people that are involved as athletes have the same dreams and the same energy and same enthusiasm that they have.”
As part of “Project Unify,” Special Olympics Indiana began a partnership with the Indiana High School Athletic Associate called Champions Together. According to Furnish, more than half of the high schools in the state got involved with Special Olympics in some way last year.
This partnership allows athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to compete together. Some of the schools also organized their own Special Olympics teams, said Furnish.
“I think it’s always great to recognize that our athletes are just like any other athletes. They might have an intellectual disability or something that’s different, but we celebrate those differences,” said Adjei. “It’s important for people to recognize that our athletes really do have the same passion, and that’s to win.”
Special Olympics is the largest sports organizations in the world for people with intellectual disability. It’s a powerful movement, said Adjei. There are more than four million Special Olympics athletes spread throughout all 50 states and 170 countries.