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Special Olympics Programs Spotlight Disabilities Without Shame

We were sitting in the bleachers at the gym at Clark University today, in between basketball games. Nat's team was in Special Olympics Massachusetts State Games this weekend, and we were waiting for our third and last game.

I felt as if I had just finished a large feast--tired, well-gorged, and satisfied. Although Nat's team ultimately were 1 and 4, the second game today was magnificent. That was when they hit their stride. Unlike last year, just about every athlete (as opposed to the unified players, who are not cognitively impaired) on Nat's team played really strong offense. Nat, G, B, S, J, and C all brought the ball down the court several times during the game where one or the other made baskets. Nat scored twice. M did not dribble much, but he has such focus that he seems to be psychokinetic; it is as if his eyes will that ball into the basket. He stands very very still and stares upward, and it seems as if he is moving in slow motion. He brings the ball up and just about every time, he makes a basket.

At Special O you are in the magnificent presence of disability. Special needs, disorder, birth defect, all of those terms that make outsiders shudder: they are in full view, right in your face. You see disability in all of its rawness, and there are moments where this fact, of the glaring, obvious, outwardly distorted and seemingly different are so apparent that your breath catches. And we don't shudder at all. These are our kids, and their teammates. This is their moment.

It is the flawed moments when Special O is the most interesting. One moment is when a teammate forgets which basket is his and scores for the other team. Another is when someone makes a terrific shot -- long after the whistle has been blown. Another is the way the team members hang onto the ball, twisting and turning away from an opponent, traveling down the court with it in their hands; or when they try to slap it away from each other, greedy and nasty. Sometimes an athlete will be pushed down or will trip and fall. I saw one stout angry guy start to hit one of our teammates, in frustration.

We clap and yell when our team makes a basket; but we also clap when the other team makes a basket. We also get pissed off when they make too many.

Another potential pitfall is underestimating an opponent. This is really the parents' issue. Sitting there in the stands a few of us noticed this extremely short, rotund man, who did not move very fast. But -- oh my God could that guy shoot. It started to get to be, "Oh, no here comes that guy!" Same thing at another game: two guys who seemed almost to be twins, short, wide, middle-aged, wearing pale gold shorts; they were a whirlwind.

Sometimes the unifieds get a little aggressive. I don't think anyone wants to win as badly as they do. The way they jump to seize the ball -- Ro is one of them. She flies through the air. She runs like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, her feet smacking the floor like thunder. She will not let the other team have the ball. She gives the other unifieds (the opponents) "the look," and like Medusa she could turn them to stone. (Although Ro is beautiful.) (Look in the background at #7, my dear Nat, going on Walkabout all of a sudden.)

I thought I'd seen everything.  Every moving, sweet, gripping, heart-stopping instance. And then, just before our third and last game was to start, this little woman walks by -- bespectacled, slightly shuffling. She couldn't have been more than four feet tall. She was probably in her thirties. She cradled a Paddington Bear against her cheek. My heart just turned right over. I wanted one, too. That was the Special Olympics moment, the reason we all go. Disability is real there; nothing hidden, and no one ashamed. It is interesting, it is poignant. We see that "they" are all human beings with needs, desires, anger, spitefulness, caginess, and every other human nuance. Paddington Lady and all the others remind us that "they" are "us."

Photo by WhyOhGee via Flickr


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