Like you, on the phone I’m often asked to repeat or spell the name of the street I live on – giving directions or confirming my address. Since I get tired of repeating/spelling “Eunice” I sometimes say, “Have you heard of Eunice Shriver?” Having done that more than 100 times, I’m not sure anyone has ever said no. That’s a testament to something – maybe the Kennedys’ ongoing fame, maybe her daughter Maria Shriver’s marriage to Arnold Schwarzenegger – but I like to think it’s because people at least vaguely know that she’s done important work for disabled people, and they certainly don’t want to sound like they don’t know that.
As I watch the Special Olympics World Games taking place this week in Los Angeles, I think about both of those things – Shriver’s foundational work, and the stigma of not knowing about it. Certainly, that particular stigma is a hard-fought reversal of the other stigma associated with the Games – that many of these 6,000 athletes from around the world grew up marginalized, disenfranchised, barred entry to educational opportunities and other chances to feel normal.
If you were to see the entireties of all our lives happening at once – if time did not mean what it now means – then disability would be the least discriminating of conditions, because we are all going to be disabled, sooner or later, by age or illness or injury. And yet time does mean what it now means, and that means that the disabled remain our most vulnerable minority. The Games provide the opportunity for some disabled to be winners, and the other disabled athletes to be normal at least for a week.
Considering what an incalculable good that is, it’s somewhat astonishing to me that the Games only go back less than 50 years, to 1968. Thinking about Eunice Shriver and her remarkable vision then, I think back to my own evolving attitudes toward people with special needs. I was born in 1971. I do believe that as a child, I felt some kind of instinctive repulsion from those who looked differently, acted differently from me. I’m not proud of that, and it reminds me of the challenges my son will face every day of his life. In my case, by high school, I enjoyed being friendly with the two wheelchair-bound, non-verbal people in our year – some of you will remember Kevin and Stephanie. But it’s different for everyone, and the Games provide badly needed exposure and representation.
One might say the same thing about the terrific movie Murderball (2005), but I’m afraid not enough people see documentaries, even the outstanding ones. They’re more likely to have seen the South Park episode where Cartman pretends to be disabled to compete in the Special Olympic Games – afterward, Johnny Knoxville based an entire movie, The Ringer, on the same premise (and co-starred many genuinely disabled people). Of course, the end message of both comedies is an inclusive one. But they play on neurotypical people’s typical anxieties and concerns – aren’t the Games just another form of discrimination? Don’t they encourage negative stereotypes? Aren’t they paternalistic? Don’t some disabled people compete at the highest level anyway, like Jim Abbott and Oscar Pistorius?
No, no, no, and yes. Yes it is amazing how far some disabled have come, but in the real world, we’re a long way from most disabled people coming anywhere near Pistorius-levels of glory. Keith Storey famously claimed that some studies have shown that visibility of the disabled can in fact increase prejudice against them, perhaps because we see them flailing or reaching for a hug after a competition.
To Keith Storey I say, balderdash. I think this is a clear case of too little pushing the pendulum one way, and too much pushing it the other – as with gay representation. When you only see one or two self-identified gay people in your life, it’s easy for people and communities and even countries to isolate them – as evidenced in President Obama’s current trip to Africa, and evidenced by more than half the countries around the world. But as you get to know more and more gays, on TV and otherwise, eventually what was once abnormal becomes normal. (Though Storey’s article does seem to have had the effect of ending post-competition hugs, at least as part of TV coverage.)
Did you know that the Deaflympics were cancelled four years ago? (Well, did you even know that there are Deaflympics?) The Slovakian organizer, Jaromir Ruda, made off with 1.6 million Euros. (Well, he’s been sentenced to 14 years in prison, but that’s on appeal.) Here’s the thing: there are many Jaromir Rudas around the world, neuro-typical people who exploit and prey upon the disadvantaged. We need to name and shame them, as we do the Dylann Roofs of the world, so that the next asshole thinks twice.
I’m glad ESPN isn’t listening to Keith Storey. Frankly, ESPN is on a bit of a hot streak – ten years ago, the channel barely screened tennis, soccer, or anything else outside the American Big Four (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). I’ve been very impressed with their packaging of this week’s Special Olympics World Games. Sure, of course, they’re going to over-narrativize a few athletes with a ribbon and bow: slow-mo cam, re-enactments in the right places, lilting music, choice words from parents, seamless segue to the competition where they often win. That doesn’t bother me a bit. Nor do I mind that neurotypical broadcasters (and Z-list ones at that) are leading the coverage – this isn’t women’s tennis, where it looks stupid to feature exclusively men commenting in the booth (after a few decades, NBC finally figured that out and got lucky with the very talented Mary Carillo). No, it’s probably important to show NT people (as we in the community call them) being so happy to genuflect to the disabled. I also like that the baby-montage intros and outros (you know, 5-10 seconds of random footage coming in and out on segments) so prominently feature people with so-called “low tone” – the somewhat prominent chin and rounded eyes that are sometimes associated with adults with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities. Yes, we need to see those people as more than Eric Cartman’s jokes. They’re as human as the rest of us.
ESPN profiled one athlete, a track-and-field-running girl named Davaa Magvansuren from Mongolia, and as the camera journeyed through her tiny, rural Mongolian village I couldn’t help but think of the film The Horse Boy, and the scenes where the American parents take their autistic son (when he’s about Dar’s current age) to Mongolia in search of better treatments. So on the one hand, you have Americans coming to a far-off land for help, and on the other hand, a mother from that land is telling ESPN, “We found out that the school manager had excluded her from school activities and she wasn’t allowed to eat lunch with the other students. She told us Davaa wasn’t fit for their school and she could continue only as an observer.”
And I find other personal connections. This week’s ceremonies are in Los Angeles, so there’s plenty of opportunities for celebrities to swing by and do the Katy Perry-Jodi DiPiazza thing, and sure enough, many have. The Games are centered around the neo-classical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the athletes are being housed next door at the University of Southern California, in the same residential housing where I once served as a supervisor. We’re all part of the same world here.
Now, I’m not saying I want Dar to compete in the Special Olympics. Maybe, maybe not. First, I’d like him to be able to tell me that he wants such a thing, and that’s many, many, iPad buttons down the road for him. But it’s hard not to draw connections when yesterday, Dar was in a special for-disabled swim class, and today, he’s watching disabled swimmers on TV with me. On some level, to paraphrase Jesse Jackson, the Special Olympics keep hope alive. Thank you, Shriver family, for keeping hope alive, from Eunice Kennedy to Eunice Street.