The Special Olympics is just a sporting event for disabled children, right? Wrong. The Special Olympics have a positive and lasting effect on participants, their families, and all those facing disability.
All Ages Can Participate
The Special Olympics welcomes both children and adults with developmental disabilities, inviting them to compete in events regardless of skill level. Any individual above the age of seven can participate in the games, while those younger than seven can participate in preparatory activities. This allows disabled individuals to begin participating in the games as young children and continue throughout their lives.
While trying as many of the 32 different Olympic-Style sports offered, participants can build and sustain friendships throughout the years. Family members and friends can also build relationships, forming a network of those in similar situations.
Individuals with developmental disabilities are often excluded from many common peer situations, and have less opportunity to learn the necessary social skills for effective interaction. This results in isolation and inability to successfully function in a social setting.
Practicing for and competing in the Special Olympics allows participants to meet many other individuals who live the same lifestyle with similar disabilities. Teammates and coaches work together to build lasting friendships amongst themselves. This also gives participants the chance to converse with individuals who enjoy the same sports and likely share other similar interests.
The Special Olympics promotes the integration of disabled and non-disabled participants. According to a study by the Journal of Research in Developmental Disabilities, participants’ perception of their social acceptance increases with the number of medals and number of training hours per week2.
Sense of Achievement
Competing in the Special Olympics gives participants a sense of achievement. No matter how they compare to other competitors, all athletes receive a medal to recognize their accomplishments. This allows participants to take pride in their abilities and show off their experience as a Special Olympics athlete.
Athletes also work together to build upon current skills, allowing them to improve their sports and relationship skills at the same time. This can positively impact their self confidence and sense of achievement throughout the experience. A participant’s perception of self-worth and achievement increases with medals, number of competitions, and number of years participating in the games2.
Focus on Ability
In preparation for and during the tournaments of the Special Olympics, the focus is on the ability, not disability, of each competitor. Coaches, volunteers, attendees, and other competitors spend this time focusing not on what individuals are unable to do, but instead on what they are able to do. This is a rewarding time for individuals to be the focal point of a positive situation.
While many participants have likely been the center of attention due to their disability, this gives each a chance to be the focus for a different reason, which they may not experience often.
Preparing for and competing in the Special Olympic Games instills confidence in participants. Competing in the games has a positive effect on many psychological factors which influence an individual’s confidence, such as body image, perceptions of self-efficacy, satisfaction, and quality of life1. All those who participate are encouraged to be themselves and do their best. This leads to higher employment rates and longer sustained employment in disabled adults, as the confidence gained during the games translates to daily life.
Because everyone attending the Special Olympics competitions understands, supports, and likely has a family member or friend with a disability, there is a strong sense of community. This is a time when family members and friends can lean on each other for support and share stories and information with those in similar situations.
Although the World Games only take place every two years, similar to the Olympics, there are smaller games taking place all over the world on an annual basis. This allows disabled individuals to participate in practices and events often, keeping interest high and creating an increased sense of achievement and community.
Participating in the Special Olympic games helps to improve physical factors such as aerobic capacity, gross motor function, physical fitness, endurance, skill level, balance, and muscle strength1. The main goals of the Special Olympics include providing sports training, encouraging fitness, commitment, and discipline through sport, and providing the opportunity to participate, train for, and compete in a wide variety of sporting events.
The benefits gained by participating in the Special Olympics have been proven to be maintained over time even after the competition2. While cognitive factors are important in the development of self-worth, life experiences continue to heavily influence perception. By participating in the events, disabled individuals can drastically change their perceptions of themselves and their community in a lasting way.
The Special Olympics organization is not only focused on sporting events. They are a leading researcher on disabilities, their causes, and their effects on individuals. They are also advocates for individuals with disabilities and offer support to their families.
By participating in or supporting the Special Olympics, individuals are supporting the research, advocacy, and support of those facing disability.
1Crawford, C., Burns, J., & Fernie, B. (2015). Psychosocial impact of involvement in the Special Olympics. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 45/46, 93-102.
2Weiss, J., Diamond, T., Demark, J., & Lovald, B. (2003). Involvement in Special Olympics and its relations to self-concept and actual competency in participants with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24(4), 281-305.