Judith Serrano can’t escape the voices — she is haunted by the cupped-hand whispers and blatant stares that follow her like silhouettes as she walks down supermarket aisles and through shopping malls, holding her daughter’s hand.
As she sits under the deep blue of a cloudless May sky, she speaks solemnly when describing the way people act toward her mentally disabled daughter. “People look at my daughter differently when we take her shopping and they whisper to each other,” Serrano said. “Sometimes I get mad and I say, ‘Shut up, stop talking about my daughter.’”
Serrano’s daughter, Wendy, is a 19-year-old Special Olympics track and field athlete with mental retardation. She is one of 13,000 Special Olympic athletes in Northern California and one of 49 million Americans with a disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is also one of many special-needs persons who has fallen victim to human ignorance and found comfort and confidence in participating with Special Olympics of Northern California.
How It All Started
Special Olympics is an international nonprofit organization that conducts competitive sporting events for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It began in 1968 as a day camp in the backyard of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy and mother of current California First Lady Maria Shriver.
Now a global campaign promoting awareness and acceptance of persons with disabilities, the program offers 30 Olympic-style sports in nearly 200 countries.
In Northern California alone, there are 15 different sports that athletes can compete in, including everything from long-distance running and gymnastics to roller-skating and powerlifting. There are six different regions, each encompassing several counties with one or more teams per county. Santa Cruz has two teams that compete in several different sports, including basketball, aquatics and track.
Coaches, parents and athletes agree that there are many wide-ranging benefits from these different opportunities to participate in Special Olympics, both for the athletes themselves and the volunteers who coach them.
Audrey Bright is a Cabrillo College student who has been competing in Special Olympics for the past eight years. Her father, Michael Bright, lists the benefits that the organization has held for his daughter.
“Socialization, the sports aspect of it, the fact that she can feel a sense of accomplishment and it gets her out in the community a lot,” Bright said.
Brittany Guest, a fifth-year health sciences major at UC Santa Cruz and a Special Olympics coach of five years, says the organization helps athletes build confidence and meet people with conditions similar to their own.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to be involved and hang out with people that are like them that are dealing with disabilities,” Guest said. “It makes them have more confidence — a lot of these kids are really dependent on their parents and when they have a couple hours to go out with their friends, they socially blossom.”
For 50-year-old Matt Freeman, a Special Olympics track and field athlete on the Santa Cruz team, building friendships has been the biggest upside.
“I like meeting people, and the coaches are great — you can’t beat ‘em,” said Freeman, who has been with Special Olympics since 1973.
Guest adds that she gets a lot out of coaching the athletes as well.
“Honestly, they just bring me so much joy,” she said. “If you’re in a bad mood they’re gonna make you smile. They’re so incredible and high-spirited and so accepting of you and everything about you.”
While Special Olympics athletes may not have the same physical athleticism as their professional Olympian counterparts, the preparation they endure for events is no less intense. They have the same look of concentration on their faces, with a mix of determination for the task at hand as well as pride for what they’ve already accomplished.
The athletes train for eight to 10 weeks through weekly practices with their coaches before going to a regional competition such as Spring Games, held each year in May. Based on the results at regionals, athletes are then chosen to compete at either the Summer Games or Championships.
Cindy Blyther, the sports and competition manager for Special Olympics Northern California, said the competitions are what she enjoys most about her job.
“The competitions are where the athletes get to show off their talents,” Blyther said. “This is where all the hours in the office make it worth it, to see the athletes having fun and enjoying themselves at the competitions.”
President Obama’s Blunder: Ignorance is Not Bliss
It happened two months into President Obama’s term, during his appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He began joking about his bowling skills, or lack thereof.
“I bowled a 129,” Obama said with a smile as the audience cheered and applauded. After Jay Leno sarcastically remarked, “No, that’s very good, Mr. President,” Obama delivered his foot-in-mouth remark, replying, “It was like the Special Olympics or something.”
Although Obama was quick to apologize — he released a statement before the show even aired that night — many politicians and media outlets were just as quick to criticize. Alaskan governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose youngest child has Down’s syndrome, attacked Obama for his comment.
Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, son of founder Eunice, released a statement that expressed disappointment in Obama’s comment but also said it could be used as a learning experience.
“Using ‘Special Olympics’ in a negative or derogatory context can be a humiliating put-down to people with special needs,” Shriver said in the statement. “This is a teachable moment for our country. We are asking young people, parents and leaders from all walks of life to engage in conversation and help dispel negative caricatures about people with intellectual disabilities.”
Parents and coaches of Special Olympics athletes expressed similar sentiments about the president’s gaffe.
“I was mad,” Judith Serrano said. “It hurts a lot of people, especially parents because we already deal with a lot of people, and when the president makes that kind of comment it’s weird.”
David Cunningham, assistant aquatics coach for the Special Olympics team at Gunderson High School in San Jose, says that while he doesn’t think that the president meant to say anything hurtful, it was unfortunate that Obama showed his naïveté.
“I don’t think the president of the United States realizes the level of competition and effort put into it,” Cunningham said. “I think we need to get him to some games so he understands the level of competition.”
Many people still remain unaware of Special Olympics of Northern California, despite the fact that they continue to grow in publicity and number of participants.
UCSC student Guest has been coaching one of the two local Special Olympics teams throughout her entire college career, and said that people on campus are generally unaware of this chance to volunteer in the community. Guest feels this lack of recognition still translates into an overall level of ignorance for persons with disabilities.
“It’s really hurtful and painful to watch when so many people generalize or make fun of people with disabilities,” Guest said. “They get so much judgment passed on them but they’re usually just so welcoming … and I just wish people would be more accepting.”
Serrano, whose daughter attends Mission High School in San Francisco, says school has been the biggest challenge for Wendy.
“The first year she didn’t want to go to school because she didn’t know the people,” Serrano said. “A lot of people were mean to her … her mind is like a 7-year-old and she’s 19, so people made fun of her.”
Jeff Hillgrove of San Carlos says that with his autistic son Ben, it may come down to people not being patient enough to understand.
“With autism, everything has to be broken down in steps,” Hillgrove said. “Typical kids don’t have the patience for that. … I don’t think they realize how to deal with him.”
Despite the various obstacles facing public awareness of persons with special needs, many are hopeful that ignorance is gradually diminishing.
“I think [awareness] is getting better because of how prevalent [disabilities are],” Hillgrove said. “I think the public is becoming more aware because it’s hitting them in the face.”
Guest also believes that the public is becoming more understanding and knowledgeable, and she points to a new class being offered at UCSC that may play a significant part in this.
The upper-division psychology class PSYC 171, titled “Childhood Psychopathology,” explores the developmental and social contexts surrounding various disabilities, and it includes a mandatory volunteering component.
“I think the UCSC class made a huge leap forward in bringing about education that encompasses the issues surrounding the special needs community,” Guest said.
According to coach David Cunningham, the United States still has a way to go in becoming aware of persons with disabilities, but there is progress being made.
“I think in America we’re making an effort to go forward,” Cunningham said. “Where that goes I don’t know.”
For Serrano, what matters is that the public is aware of what disabled people and their families have to endure.
When asked what needs to be done to improve ignorance about persons with disabilities, Serrano pauses and looks at her daughter, who is wearing a smile as bright as the neon yellow of her T-shirt as she gets ready to line up for her race. Serrano looks back and speaks in a soft and serious tone.
“People need to be educated so they can understand what I’ve been going through,” she said. “They are special and shouldn’t be treated differently.”
To learn more about volunteering with Special Olympics at UC Santa Cruz, please contact Brittany Guest at firstname.lastname@example.org.