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Photo by Terry Donofrio courtesy of SONJPhotos

The Special Olympics Is Not Here to Be Your 'Inspiration Porn'

Molly Oswaks

Molly Oswaks

The Special Olympics has always been billed as an example of equal opportunity for the disabled. But a vocal minority among the community it was created to serve call the term "special" condescending—and feel it diminishes the athlete's talents and...

Photo by Terry Donofrio courtesy of SONJPhotos

Day one of the Special Olympics New Jersey 2016 Summer Games is sunny and clear, the platonic ideal of early summer. In the Lions Stadium at the College of New Jersey, where the weekend's events will take place, students here to participate in the Unified Game Day festivities attempt to toss Frisbees against a prohibitively strong crosswind.

Along the lower rows of the west-facing bleachers, their caregivers talk about walking them through the halls at school, holding their hands only as long as they believe the child needs it, not wanting to become a crutch. "The more you treat them normal, the better off they are," says a woman with short, chemically relaxed hair, wearing a red zip-up hoodie. The other caregivers agree.

After an hour of Frisbee, the kids and teenaged volunteers gather in a circle and jump up and down, shouting "Cameron is a star!" and "Britney is a star!" until everyone has had his or her moment in the spotlight.

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In the stands are a few watchful parents, but mostly it's teachers who have brought their students to participate in the Unified Game Day festivities. Unified Sports pairs intellectually disabled younger athletes with non-disabled volunteers of a similar age and ability level, in an effort to establish a common ground and break down misconceptions about people living with intellectual disabilities.

The Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) Summer Games span Friday—which includes Unified Game Day and an evening opening ceremony complete with ceremonial torch lighting and a township flag parade—through Sunday's noontime closing ceremony. The competitive games themselves all take place on one long, jam-packed Saturday. On this day, athletes participate in aquatics, track and field, tennis, softball, bocce, powerlifting, and, of course, that classic crowd favorite: gymnastics.

The athletes here range in age, from as young as two-and-a-half years old to well over 60, and they span a variety of ability levels. "We have a range of intellectual disabilities," says Heather Bell-Andersen, president and CEO of the SONJ. There are athletes here with Down syndrome, individuals across the autism spectrum, and people with cerebral palsy, in addition to less well-known disabilities, like Williams syndrome, Fragile X, and ectrodactyly.

The SONJ 2016 opening ceremony. Photo by Junious Jones courtesy of SONJPhotos.

The brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (Ted and John F. Kennedy's sister), the Special Olympics began as a summer camp, Camp Shriver, on her Maryland farm in 1962. Shriver saw how unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were discriminated against and how many of these children didn't even have a safe place to play together. Six years later, the Special Olympics first annual Summer Games took place, on July 20, 1968, in Chicago, bringing together 1000 intellectually disabled athletes from 26 states and Canada to compete in track, swimming, and floor hockey.

Forty-eight years later, the Special Olympics is now a global organization, with state-specific seasonal games and an annual World Games competition. In 2015 alone, more the 94,000 Special Olympics events were held across the world. The Special Olympics New Jersey this year has a budget of $8 million, with over 200 events held throughout the year and 25,000 volunteers; the weekend-long Summer Games alone welcomes over 3500 eager volunteers.

The organization deeply believes in fostering success on the playing field in order to give their athletes confidence in everyday life. "When you go to the Olympics—and that's the top athletes in the world going—there's one gold medal given out" for each athletic competition, explains Bell-Andersen. "We may have six or seven gold medals given out in, say, the 100-meter dash, because we division our athletes by age, sex, and ability level."

At Saturday's gymnastics competition, Mayor Barbara Wallace of Washington Township, NJ—who is judging the female gymnasts' floor routines—emphasizes the fact that every accolade is well deserved. "We don't do any 'sorry points,'" she affirms. "The athletes here get judged just like any other gymnast."

In addition to the floor routines, there are also bars, beam, and vault, with male and female teams from all across the state cycling through each activity in a four-part rotation. The gymnasts here represent a cross-section of Special Olympics athletes, with a range of disabilities, not all of them with outwardly expressive symptoms or obvious characteristics—but every one of them there to compete, jittery and focused.

The fun thing about watching an Olympic gymnastics competition is that it is a sport relying completely upon one's mastery over his or her own body. A well-executed floor routine gives the impression that the athlete somehow possesses the power of rhythmic flight. If you're good at gymnastics, it shows. You defy gravity. You perform cartwheels on a narrow beam four feet in the air, and spectators forget that so much depends upon balance. Some people are just very good at that sort of thing, disability or no.

Medals given out during this year's gymnastics event. Photo by Terry Donofrio courtesy of SONJPhotos.

The women's floor routines all follow the same series of moves set to the same song, team for team, allowing the judges to add or subtract points for each age group and ability level with a control in place. In clingy metallic leotards, sequins glinting, these young women tumble, leap, cartwheel, and stick their landings. Over on the beams, athletes of varying ability levels compete, either on a low beam an inch or so from the ground or a standard high beam.

Routines range from a labored heel-toe across the low beam, with a turn at the end, to a choreographed cartwheel affair up high. One young woman falls mid-routine but climbs back up, to much applause from the crowd. Some, but not all, require the assistance of a shadow. As in any competition, some perform better—with more accuracy and a greater show of confidence—than others.

The motto for the Special Olympics is "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the pursuit."

At the end of the competition, the microphone used by the woman announcing the awards begins to fail, with only one in every five or so words audible, and the gym is already noisy with families and athletes punchy after a long morning of competition. There's no shortage of medals and calls of distinction, and many athletes return to the tiered podium again and again, each receiving yet another medal around her neck, posing for yet another photograph. Some athletes grow visibly tired and annoyed with the repeated need to approach the podium, but others seem overjoyed.

Some people in the disability rights movement have tried to make the public aware of the negative impact of over-praise, or so-called inspiration porn. In fact, the Special Olympics's micro-categorized awards system has been a point of contention in the disability rights community for years.

In a 2004 article published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies, special education professor Keith Storey argued, "In the Special Olympics, everyone wins. In real life, such is not always the case." As he sees it, eliminating the threat of losing constitutes "overprotection" and deprives individuals with disabilities of "the dignity of risk," which is "necessary for normal human growth and development."

Rebecca Boro, who competed in gymnastics this year, disagrees. "I love the fact that they give everyone medals so no one is upset," she tells me. "They give athletes the sense of accomplishment when their names are called."

Other disability rights advocates worry that media coverage of the Special Olympics can veer into the realm of self-congratulatory, and that emphasizing the so-called "specialness" of competitors erases their skills and contributions. "The Special Olympics are an important community builder for disabled folks as long as able-bodied people don't use them as a feel-good-fest for themselves," says Carrie Wade, a staff writer at AutoStraddle, who writes often about her life as a young woman with cerebral palsy.

We don't do any 'sorry points.' The athletes here get judged just like any other gymnast.

"But I think the Special Olympics really needs a different name," she adds. "[The word special is] so patronizing and makes everyone competing there sound like a child, or like they're asking for something unreasonable."

Ryan O'Connell, author of the memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, which details his experiences growing up gay with cerebral palsy, feels similarly. "I actually loathe the word special," he tells me over the phone. "Calling disabled people special is... condescending and it further marginalizes us from mainstream culture."

"Disabled people do not want to be treated with kid gloves or 'othered,'" he continues. "We want to be heard; we want to be a part of the conversation. When I think of the word special, I think of someone's clueless aunt meeting a disabled person and talking to them like they're a cute pet."

In the guide provided to press at the SONJ, special is the final item in a list of "terms to avoid."

Later in the afternoon, at Olympic Village (which is set up on the unfortunately named Loser Lawn), Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" plays over the stereo system as adult volunteers in plush mascot suits––an Oreo cookie, a molar tooth––dance around, trying to entice athletes and families to visit the Healthy Athletes area. Here, vision and dental exams are being performed for free. Fruit and bottled water are up for grabs, too––all part of the SONJ's effort to educate families about healthy habits.

Meanwhile, the Lions Stadium has been turned into a carnival, with inflatable challenge games and courses. There is a metal apparatus lined with sturdy plastic dishes and softballs to throw at them, resulting in shards of white plastic covering the lawn. There's a huge, human-size Connect Four, being played by a group of local Boy Scout volunteers. It is sweltering out: 91 degrees and humid. At the base of a blow-up rock-climbing tower, a team of female gymnasts has found a rare slice of shade.

The weekend has been so tightly scheduled, full of so much anticipatory energy, it's been difficult to find the right moment to speak with the athletes and their families. Now that the games are over, these women are relaxed and eager to chat.

"I've been doing this since I was six years old," says Ashley Smollack, 26. "I do gymnastics because of my grandparents; they're the ones that inspired me. I wanted to do something that would make them proud of me." Today she has received five gold medals: beams, bar, vault, floor, and all-around athlete. She is petite and fair-skinned, with watery blue eyes and a salt-and-pepper pixie cut.

It's excellent to know that there are other people in this world with the same condition I have, and they're moving on about it.

Premature greying of the hair is a symptom of Williams syndrome (WS), a rare genetic neurological developmental disorder, which she was born with. She was given a 50/50 chance of surviving past infancy. WS comes with a host of interchangeable symptoms (musculoskeletal problems, sensitive hearing, dental and kidney abnormalities, learning disabilities) and telltale physical traits (pale eyes, full lips, upturned nose, small chin).

Ashley moves slowly to her feet when I asked if she might stand up and pose for a picture. In one shot, she stands with her hands on her hips, grinning. In the next, her arms are spread wide, spanning the length of the stadium, victorious. She says she wishes she hadn't left her medals in her dorm room, but they had become heavy around her neck.

"A lot of people that have conditions like I do are afraid to tell other people about them," she tells me. "I don't take pity on myself for having it." Through the Special Olympics, Ashley has met others with WS, which affects one person in five to ten thousand. "It's excellent to know that there are other people in this world with the same condition I have, and they're moving on about it, not taking pity on themselves; they're doing what they do best."

We're joined by another gymnast, Rebecca Boro, 20, who has just come off of the inflatable rock-climbing structure, nearly back-flipping as she belayed down. It's her tenth year competing in the Special Olympics, though she does other recreational sports as well––basketball with a special education group connected to the Jewish Community Center. Rebecca does art classes through the JCC, too, and leadership workshops through DECA, an organization providing leadership and entrepreneurial training to high school and college students. Rebecca has cerebral palsy, like Carrie Wade and Ryan O'Connell.

A competitor on the high beam. Photo by SONJ courtesy of SONJPhotos.

"I want to be a motivational speaker when I grow up," she tells me. "Everyone keeps telling me that I don't have enough experience, but I'm like, Really? My life story is an experience."

I ask Rebecca if I can take her picture, and after I capture a few shots on my iPhone, her coach comes over and tells her she needs permission from her parents to have her photograph taken.

"But she's 20," I tell the coach. "She's an adult."

Her coach seems surprised by Rebecca's age—or perhaps just surprised by the awkwardness of the situation. There have been professional photographers wandering around the games all weekend long, capturing photographs for the SONJ that will then be provided to journalists to use in their stories. Rebecca appears in several of them.

A few weeks later, I follow up with Rebecca over Facebook. I can't stop thinking about this exchange and am wondering if she was struck by it, too.

"Many times people assume that because I have some special needs, they think I need more help than my typical peers. That is not always true," she tells me. "I know how to ask for help when I need it. I don't want to be completely independent yet, but I don't want to be babied either. I think people need to find a balance."