Changing our mindset towards Special Olympics


Kathryn McAuliffe

Junior and cheerleader Tori Fischer hugs a Special Olympics athlete during the opening ceremony last year. Throughout the basketball tournament, cheerleaders encourage athletes from the side of the court. “Cheering for Special Olympics is honestly one of my favorite things I get to do during the school year,” Fischer said. “At normal games, we have to stay in formations and do planned cheers and people are so used to us that [it] doesn’t get people excited. But at Special Olympics a lot of the athletes get excited when they hear us cheering for them and we can cheer them on in a totally relaxed and more personal way.”

In the days following Special Olympics, Instagram floods with photos of “Buddies” smiling next to their athletes. Buddies are student volunteers who help and support their partnered Special Olympics athlete throughout the event. However, the basketball tournament, the sole purpose of the event, is often overshadowed by photo opps and the mentality of “praise-worthy actions.” 

When we aim to provide service on a day spent with athletes, it is easy to lose sight of what exactly the “purpose” is. It should be clearly distinguished that helping athletes play and enjoy basketball is where the “service” part comes into play. Spending time with people who may not look or be exactly like us should be a more common practice; this action alone is not service and should not be recognized as such.

Teacher Assistant Susan Anderson has been in charge of organizing Special Olympics alongside several other staff members for the past eight years.

“I think a lot of us live in a bubble. I know a lot of us are unaware of people having different ability levels or don’t consider that as something like a challenge people deal with. I think that usually people come out of this day with a bigger picture of all the types of different people around us every day. Most student volunteers come out of it saying they learned more from [their athlete] than their [athlete] learned from them,” Anderson said.

Special Olympics provides student volunteers with an opportunity to communicate and interact with people of different abilities while participating in a variety of fun activities. Despite the fact that these athletes, ranging from first to 12th grade, have different levels of basketball experience and physical or mental abilities, they all become generalized into one group under the single label of “special,” or disabled.

By dividing ourselves into groups based on ability, we subconsciously foster an “us versus them” mentality. The range of differing abilities present in events like Special Olympics are just as present in everyday situations; we need to utilize opportunities like that of being a Buddy to learn how to communicate with people in ways we are not used to. These skills should transfer to our lives outside of Day of Service.

“Sometimes [when I watch students participate in the event] I’m like, ‘I didn’t know he had it in him,’ or I see some of the athlete’s eyes lit up and they’re so elated because they’re just having the best day. The athletes really look up to their buddies,” Anderson said.

Special Olympics has been a long-standing tradition for more than 30 years. However, participation was previously limited to an applicant-only process. Now, students choose between volunteering for Special Olympics or Day of Service.

One result of this change is that when students are given the choice between volunteering with Day of Service or Special Olympics, they may choose to volunteer for Special Olympics simply for the convenience of staying on campus. However, it is important that students participating are doing so for the experience, not the photo opp, or as a way to avoid off campus community service. 

“The day of the event, I can tell who wants to be there and who is just going through the motions,” Anderson said. “I had a group of seven freshman boys come into my room this year and demand they could sign up for Special Olympics. Nobody else has been that determined. That, to me, really showed me that there are people in it for the right reasons.”

Special Olympics is a unique event which we all look forward to. But, even while we are enjoying ourselves, we need to be mindful of the way we look at the day to ensure we are learning, not just posing.   

At the end of the event, many student volunteers take photos with their Buddy to remember the day. There is no inherent issue with taking photos at an event, but the culture of posting on social media with our buddies––typically people you’ve just met––can be interpreted as asking to be praised for the time you’ve spent, rather than the things you’ve done. This type of interaction should be normalized and done outside of service opportunities and without need for recognition or validation from others on social media. 

Furthermore, per the rules of Special Olympics, Buddies are not even permitted to post photos with their athletes on personal social media accounts. Some athletes, with a special marking on their name tags, are not allowed to be photographed at all. It is important that as a community we respect everyone’s needs. 

In order to create a more inclusive environment, we must first change our mindset towards Special Olympics. The team-focused sport of basketball fosters cooperation and connection between students of different abilities, creating a space for this type of interaction to be normalized. The overarching takeaway of Special Olympics should be how we can better bridge the gaps between people of different abilities in our everyday lives.