Special Olympics chairman on disabilities: ‘There’s terrible stigma, and it’s subtle’

Tim Shriver on issues for those with disabilities and his wish that games return to Ireland

Team Ireland’s medal tally at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi has risen to more than 70. Video: Sarah Burns

 

There remains “terrible stigma” across the world towards people with disabilities, the chairman of the Special Olympics has said.

Tim Shriver – a nephew of former US president John F Kennedy, and whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics – also said he would like to see the World Games return to Ireland.

“There’s terrible stigma all over the world, and it’s subtle, it hides,” he said. “Increasingly people think everything’s done and then they move on with their lives and they ignore people who have challenges, people who are different, people who have different forms of intelligence.

“[People with disabilities] are not seen still in mainstream life and in most places in the world. So we have a lot of work to do. We have athletes in chains, we have athletes tied. The biggest challenge facing people with intellectual disability in the United States is loneliness.”

Mr Shriver acknowledged there had been some criticism towards the organisation for its decision to host this year’s World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, but he said it was “an easy decision”.

“There was some fear based on stereotypes and stigma. We’re in a place that’s been stereotyped representing people who are stereotyped, trying to end stereotypes,” he said.

People ask me, ‘Where do I go to see what the Special Olympics movement can do?’ I say, ‘Go to Ireland'

“I’ve been here myself several times before, I’ve seen what’s going on here, I met the leadership, we met with the mothers and fathers, met with teachers – absolutely no concern whatsoever.”

Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics: ‘The biggest challenge facing people with intellectual disability in the United States is loneliness.’ Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics: ‘The biggest challenge facing people with intellectual disability in the United States is loneliness.’ Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Team Ireland’s Stephen Murphy in action against Emile Terrettaz of Switzerland during the male/mixed play-off round 1 basketball game. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Team Ireland’s Stephen Murphy in action against Emile Terrettaz of Switzerland during the male/mixed play-off round 1 basketball game. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

‘Secret hope’

Mr Shriver said the Special Olympics World Games hosted in Dublin in 2003 united the country. “I would love to see the games go back to Ireland. I had a secret hope that Ireland might bid for the 2023 games, which would have been the 20th anniversary, but that wasn’t to be,” he said.

“It’s a big undertaking but I think our movement is always happy, we’re always joyful when we’re in Ireland.”

Mr Shriver also acknowledged his family’s connection to Ireland and said they celebrate St Patrick’s Day annually with Irish music. His uncle John F Kennedy visited Dunganstown near New Ross in Co Wexford in 1963, while he was president, to see his ancestral home.

“People ask me, ‘Where do I go to see what the Special Olympics movement can do?’ I say, ‘Go to Ireland’, and we need that to be the case not just today, but five, 10, 20 years from now,” he added.

“The Irish spirit is incomparable. The Irish connection in my family is obviously permanent and eternal, I might even say. But the Irish work in Special Olympics has to stay on the cutting edge for us to be successful around the world.”

Mr Shriver’s brother Mark, who sits on the board of the Special Olympics, added that the Kennedy and Shriver families continue to have a “really strong connection” with Ireland.

“I think all the members of the Kennedys and Shrivers feel really as strongly about Ireland as Ireland does about us. It’s a mutual love affair; it’s great,” he said.