WASHINGTON — On a rainy Saturday morning, in the packed gym at the Blessed Sacrament School in Northwest Washington, a parade of middle and high school basketball players, many with Down syndrome or autism, follow behind the tinfoil torch of the Special Olympics. As each athlete is introduced and cheered, he or she basks, with high fives and blown kisses, at the center of attention for all the right reasons. (Overheard from the mother of one player: “He lives for this day,” but also that, in the past, it has brought on an anxiety attack.)
Feeling the pleasing thwack of a rubber ball on hardwood is a nearly universal American experience. In the process of making it even more universal, Special Olympics varies the game a bit. It includes more than the usual share of interruptions, hugs, hand-holding and random dancing (though none of this is unknown at other high school basketball games). The players tend to be transparent, unencumbered.
Students without disabilities also participate, setting up shots for the Special Olympics athletes, whose abilities vary widely. Some have little hope of a basket; the crowd cheers when they rise after falling. Others score when the referee allows a few extra tries. Others are determined and well-practiced, displaying unsuspected skills — not, one imagines, for the first or last time, and not only in basketball. One athlete will only take shots from near the three-point line. When he finally makes one, the crowd responds with Final Four intensity.
By giving opportunities to those with intellectual disabilities, we discover what interests them. This includes sporting competition — and the inalienable right to put on a skirt and lead cheers. At halftime, the Joy cheerleading squad performance includes some impressive splits. The sight of young women with Down syndrome and other disabilities breaking the cheerleading barrier is no longer unusual. It is still better than Beyonce.
Special Olympics athletes take an oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Real bravery is rare on the main stages of sport. It was common in a suburban gym on a Saturday morning.
Because of the Special Olympics movement, the striving of disabled athletes and the pride of their parents are now familiar. But they are remarkable in historical context. Just a few decades ago, children with intellectual disabilities were subject to vast, systematic cruelty. Those with Down syndrome were often placed in institutions before parents could “bond with them,” denied surgery for heart problems and intestinal blockages, and targeted for eugenic sterilization. In 1929, most children born with Down syndrome did not live until age 10. Today, average life expectancy is between 50 and 60. Human beings, unsurprisingly, have shorter life spans when you refuse to give them routine treatment for medical problems. Children are “uneducable” when you refuse to educate them.
Viewing the intellectually disabled as athletes has aided a civil rights revolution — changing both individual lives and social perceptions. And Special Olympics is carrying that revolution to a global scale. How many of the poor in the developing world are further disadvantaged, stigmatized and isolated by disability? We don’t really know. The world measures what it values — things like stock values and commodity prices. There is little good information on the struggles of the intellectually disabled. But Special Olympics programs in 170 countries are calling attention to the uncounted. The most recent World Games took place in Asia, where it can be hazardous to be a female child, much less a disabled one. In many places, Special Olympics has become a front-line human rights organization.
Not that America — where thousands of children with Down syndrome are aborted each year based on prenatal diagnosis — has much standing to judge. Raising a child with a disability — getting adequate services in school, helping the transition to adulthood — remains difficult in ways that are hard for outsiders to imagine.
But in dealing with struggles we would not envy, disabled children and their parents have created a form of community we should honor — where worth is not contingent on accomplishment, and people strive without fear of failure, and affection is freely given, and some get a few extra shots, and bravery is common. Everyone, it turns out, is dependent and vulnerable — and sacred and able. And the most remarkable thing about that discovery is the sheer joy of it.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.