The Special Olympics demolished our prejudices and perceptions of disability
Spirit of those heady summer days lives on
“At a recent event, there was a lad in his 30s. He’d just done some training. At the end of the event, all the athletes had to get up and say a few words. His mother said: ‘He’ll never get up and speak – he doesn’t do that.’ And then he got up and spoke to the crowd. She was blown away – even she saw him in a different light.”
The games also left a political legacy. Bertie Ahern, the then taoiseach, was booed at the opening ceremony. Many services across the State were being cut, even though the coffers were awash with money.
It was hardly a coincidence the following budget included a €900 million package to provide thousands of places in day, respite and residential services for people with disabilities. Ministers pledged that rights-based legislation for people with disabilities would follow.
Some legislation providing to the right to assessments for children with disabilities did eventually emerge, though there was no guaranteed access to services to meet their needs.
Today, services have improved. But cuts threaten to unravel supports. In recent weeks, it emerged health authorities were offering people with disabilities beds in institutions such as nursing homes, despite official policies which promote independent or supportive living.
But perhaps the Games’ most enduring legacy was more profound. The events that summer 10 years ago helped challenge many of our perceptions.
No longer did much of society regard those with life-limiting conditions as victims – they were individuals with limitless potential. No longer were they regarded as objects of pity – they were competitors with a powerful story to tell about dignity and endeavour in the face of overwhelming odds.
This, after all, was a country where those with disabilities were largely invisible, often treated as ineducable, and where families learned the price to pay for acceptance was silence. The flame of hope seemed to burn on in the hearts of everyone who was moved, touched or humbled by the 2003 Special Olympics.
The words of Rita Lawlor, a former Special Olympics athlete, rang loudly at the opening ceremony. “We ask people to focus on our ability, not on our disabilities. We have many talents, you know. We never stop trying. We know how to win. We know how to have a party. So, let’s have a party.”