But if we want to stop feeling this way, the athletes of Special Olympics can help us to understand the sources of this kind of division, and to find solutions to it.
Special Olympics is a movement for and of people with intellectual differences, who as recently as the 20th century were medically referred to as “idiots,” imbeciles” and “morons.” Millions of people were given these labels and then institutionalized, sterilized, experimented on or even killed. As recently as 1967, almost 200,000 Americans who had been given these diagnoses were locked away in institutions in conditions that were subhuman, shameful and shocking.
This sordid history taught us an indelible lesson: Identify people as too different to belong to the communities the rest of us share, and the next step can be an almost blind determination to demonize and harm them.
Those dehumanizing labels are often based on profoundly misguided generalizations. People with intellectual disabilities were judged by a single measure: IQ. This single abstract, opaque and ultimately limited number was used to justify the damage and even destruction of millions of people. People with intellectual disabilities are often more fragile, but many also have abundant gentleness and kindness, gifts that IQ doesn’t measure. They may have reduced levels of traditional intelligence but high levels of empathy. They often struggle with independence but are overflowing in trust.
Today, most Americans have concluded that there is a group that is just too “other” to deserve respect or inclusion. For many, it’s Trump voters. For others, it’s liberal elites. For others, it’s certain people of faith or people of color. The pattern is familiar. Some person or group has a quality, characteristic or belief that provokes a judgment so extreme it cannot be tolerated. “They” don’t deserve our respect or welcome. Therefore, they are hopeless, of no value. We must defeat, fix or crush them.
Special Olympics can’t solve the political or cultural challenges of our time, but it can offer some lessons worth learning.
First, have faith, not necessarily in a particular religion or creed but in the goodness within every person. Choose to believe that everyone has something valuable and beautiful to offer. A deeply felt faith in the goodness within each person was the first step in healing the vicious prejudices against people with intellectual disabilities. People who believed in them refused to accept the judgments of those who didn’t.
Second, meet the person you have excluded. Look for common ground. In Special Olympics, ours is the playing field, where we laugh and cheer and compete. There are winners and losers at our games, but the real action is in our hearts, where fears are being overcome, barriers are disappearing, and, most importantly, common humanity is being revealed and relationships of respect are launched.
Third, celebrate gifts. In Special Olympics, we give medals to competitors at all ability levels when they enter the arena and give their best. Rather than emphasizing a contrast between strengths and weaknesses, our medal stands are places where we showcase the wide variety of human gifts.
Fourth and last, with hearts opened and relationships begun, start the work of trying to live with the inevitable pain and tension of life from a place of truth and love. There is no “them” and “us.” There is just “us.” Everyone belongs. We are each vulnerable, starving for connection and searching for a way to be of service to each other. We solve problems best when we solve them together.
I know — and I’m sure you do, too — that we are not going to be led forward to a world where everyone belongs by congressional hearings or think-tank papers or newspaper exposés or inspirational speeches by any politician, no matter how eloquent. We are starved for respect, kindness and empathy, and an end to the anxiety and distrust that are destroying us. We are desperate for solutions.
Maybe it’s time to listen to the healers instead of the dividers. Fifty-one years after the founding of Special Olympics, the work goes on. In schools and gyms and playing fields all over this country, young people are joining the movement and choosing to play, and live, unified. Athletes with intellectual differences are no longer victims: They’re leading and teaching us all how to create a more just and trusting future. It’s time the country listened.