Special Olympics: If not here, then where?

Although Special Olympics accurately features the athletic abilities of people with disabilities, they neglected to highlight the musical abilities of truly gifted people with autism or other intellectual disabilities in their two biggest, televised events.

by Ryan Berman

This past July, I cried throughout the Special Olympics World Games opening ceremonies, which welcomed approximately 6,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 165 countries on Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As a teacher in the disability community, I was proud to witness such an embracing event celebrating the determination and abilities of these extraordinary athletes. There was so much that was done so right like individuals with intellectual disabilities accompanying celebrities onstage to spread the message of Special Olympics and Special Olympics athlete, Tim Harris, who owns a restaurant in New Mexico, introducing First Lady, Michelle Obama – an honor any American would be thrilled to have. Special Olympics athletes proudly represented their countries, more than 60,000 fans gathered to share their support, professional dancers moved throughout the field, and fireworks topped the finale. However, as much as I would have loved to been totally moved by the events, tears welled up inside of me for another reason. Something very important was missing.

special olympics opening ceremoney

The three-hour ceremony was broadcast on ESPN and in an attempt to “create a world that is not dominated by those who are excluded but by those who are included,” Special Olympics made a powerful statement by not selecting a single highly gifted musician with an intellectual disability to perform at a show that is supposed to highlight the abilities of people with special needs. I couldn’t help but wonder, “If not here, then where?”

Nicole Scherzinger received tremendous applause after sharing her voice with the world. But consider if 16-year-old Talina, a talented young woman with autism who has three number one hits on the Independent Music Network (IMN), performed at Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, GMA Studios, United Nations, and has been featured on every major Television Network sang the National Anthem instead? What message would Special Olympics be sending the world then?

Cassadee Pope, The Voice season three winner, was also featured during the opening ceremonies. Cassadee, while singing beautifully, does not have an intellectual disability. James Durbin, who finished fourth place on the tenth season of American Idol, is an autism advocate and has been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome. Durbin showed America that having a disability should never stop you from pursuing your dreams. What about Susan Boyle, the international sensation with Asperger syndrome from Britain’s Got Talent, who wowed audiences with her voice, topped record charts, and was nominated for two Grammy awards? Where are the performers with disabilities, the ones, not unlike the athletes, who through their own individual talent, grit, and determination, manage to overcome all of the obstacles that life presents them and still go out and perform magnificently? If not here, then where?

special olympics
Throughout the ceremonies, dancers of all ages took the stage and performed behind singers and musicians. Special Olympics could have selected dancers with disabilities to fill those positions or, at the very least, had them accompany the non-disabled dancers. Within Los Angeles, many reputable dance and performing arts companies exist for individuals with autism and other disabilities such as The Miracle Project, GuiDANCE, and Autism Movement Therapy. All non-profits offer dance, movement, and expressive arts programs for individuals with disabilities, exposing them to creative expression normally only available to their typically-abled peers. All three organizations align with Special Olympics’ message by showing the world what these individuals CAN do, not what they cannot. Imagine the Coliseum erupting in celebration as dancers with disabilities performed behind Stevie Wonder (who has a physical disability, not intellectual) instead of the professional dancers.

There were approximately 30 performers with disabilities who graced the stage during the very end of the final song at the Special Olympics opening ceremonies; however, you probably missed them. They were relegated to the background as if their participation was an afterthought, or worse, confirmation that they are viewed as being incapable of being stars in their own right. Although Special Olympics accurately features the athletic abilities of people with disabilities, they neglected to highlight the musical abilities of truly gifted people with autism or other intellectual disabilities in their two biggest, televised events.

Overall, the Special Olympics opening ceremony was fantastic. The event was engaging, entertaining, and inspiring. Even though the Special Olympics opening ceremonies showed the world that there are truly amazing athletes in the disability community, it missed a monumental opportunity to change the perception of audiences throughout the world to the truly amazing musical and dance talents of individuals with intellectual disabilities. If not here, then where?

Ryan Berman, MSW, is a professional in the Los Angeles disability community. He is the COO of The Miracle Project, a non-profit specializing in autism and other disabilities, an interventionist, and advocate.

Editor Keri Bower’s Note:

Several people who run groups that performed at The Special Olympics contacted us privately to echo the very same disappointment and dismay that Ryan openly talks about in his Op. Ed. blog. They too were stunned with The Special Olympics Committee’s choice and decision to relegate their teams of “special” talent to the sidelines, and to off-venue locations during the games.

A couple of those people/groups attempted to advocate for more prominent inclusion in the actual opening ceremonies – seeing the imbalance and hypocrisy of the entire purpose of the event – which was diluted by focusing on mainstream, non-disabled talent. Though we are paraphrasing here, those people/groups were told in no uncertain terms that the decision to have prominent acts featured were to bring in viewers; to keep the importance of the costly productiuon on track; and that despite that, the “special performers” were indeed important to them.

We say: Hmmmm… Is that so?

2 replies on “Special Olympics: If not here, then where?”
  1. says: gone wild

    It could be that the ARTS have always accepted anyone with talent, regardless of what other people identify as disabilities. That is, musicians and artists are simply that; its other communities that stress disability – but in the ARTS, the disabled are accepted as mainstream.

  2. says: mike lutrell

    Good points. Where is more of the song from afflicted, inspirational comrades?

    All brains are different and so many would love to have a chance to perform to audiences that love the human factor. As with audiences that just enjoy the music for what it is.

    Some might call it the back story to the program. Some just love the vocal or musical delivery. The senses are ready for the heart and soul. The world is ready for the heart and soul.

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