On July 20, 1968, with Dr. Frank Hayden serving as a special ambassador and part of the Canadian contingent, the first Special Olympics were held in Chicago’s Soldier Field, and a spark was lit.

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Canada played a major role in a very special event, one that would change the world.

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Until the 1960s, Canadians with intellectual disabilities lived in the shadows, locked away in homes or sent off to institutions.

They did not go to school, work, or play on the corner with friends. They were not encouraged to be involved in the community, and their families were pressured to keep it that way.

But Dr. Frank Hayden had other ideas.

A University of Toronto researcher, Hayden was convinced that people had it wrong.

Studying the impact of exercise on children with intellectual disabilities, I have found that, contrary to the prevailing views, these youths thrived on the activity and social interaction.

Based on his findings, Hayden proposed a national sport competition for persons with intellectual disabilities.

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His idea drew the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose older sister had an intellectual disability.

Using Hayden’s work as the foundation and applying her own initiative, Kennedy Shriver went to work organizing a new event.

On July 20, 1968, with Hayden serving as a special ambassador and part of the Canadian contingent, the first Special Olympics were held in Chicago’s Soldier Field, and a spark was lit.

Around the world, the Special Olympics caught on, with the first event in Canada taking place in Toronto on June 9, 1969.

Today, the Special Olympics are held in nearly every country, with over five million athletes and volunteers working together and enriching their communities in a way that goes far beyond sports.

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The games have helped bring the athletes out of the shadows — as winners, friends, teammates, and torchbearers.

But we are not quite ready to give a victory cheer.

While Hayden’s work helped to change harmful attitudes and practices, it did not put an end to them.

Persons with intellectual disabilities are still underestimated, cast as the other, and bear the brunt of hurtful misconceptions.

These misconceptions hold them back in finding employment, even though it has been proven they make loyal, highly valued employees who boost workplace productivity and employee morale.

They are still struggling to live independently and gain a modicum of control over their lives, even though they are fully capable of doing so.

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And they are still regarded as people you are friendly to, but not friends with, as people who need something from others, rather than people with something to give others.

And they give plenty.

Having faced barriers throughout their lives, persons with intellectual disabilities are among the most experienced and effective advocates for change in their communities.

Self-advocacy groups like the Self-Advocate Leadership Network, the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo, SUSA, and BC People First have been feeding their communities, keeping them safe, healthy, and teaching them about everything ranging from language use to swimming.

Just as Hayden changed the world through his belief that persons with intellectual disabilities could thrive through sports, we can continue making a difference by challenging our own attitudes and practices which, no matter how well-intentioned, box them in, limit their opportunities, and prevent them from realizing their potential.

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One of the steps in doing this is holding ongoing community conversations. Community leaders — including policymakers, businesspeople, and educators — must sit at the same table as persons with intellectual disabilities and discuss how to work together in addressing challenges to equality, collaboratively generating recommendations and strategies about how to move forward on a more equal basis.

You can also start by checking your own attitudes and dropping the “other”. Consider persons with disabilities as friends, colleagues, and neighbors first, with their own mix of interests, talents, and personality — not as a people whose existence is disability with a bit of something else on the side.

We have come a long way since the start of the Special Olympics, but it is not time for a victory lap just yet.

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Spencer van Vloten is a community advocate and nationally published writer from Vancouver. He edits the community news websites BCDisability.com and YouandMeBC.ca, and has been awarded the BC Medal of Good Citizenship and the City of Vancouver Award of Excellence.


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