Recently I blogged about one of those heartwarming stories where an individual with a disability gets a moment “in the sun” to switch from team manager and play the final seconds in a basketball game or catch a pass in a football game.
I acknowledged the “feel good” nature of the story and the joy and happiness it brings to the individual, their family and to the community. I also questioned whether it was actually helping us achieve a truly inclusive society that values everyone.
What I probably should have said is that we need examples of real opportunities and not “tokens”. Tokenism does not move us forward. Fortunately, I did not have to wait long to see real opportunities.
Two weeks ago, in Worcester, Massachusetts and other locations in central and western Massachusetts, almost a thousand athletes competed in the Winter Games of Special Olympics Massachusetts. I was among the proud spectators who watched almost a dozen Unified basketball games.
Unified we pass and shoot
Unified Sports actually began in Massachusetts and is now part of every single Special Olympic sport throughout the world. Unified Sports is dedicated to promoting inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports are joint teams of people with and without intellectual disabilities. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. It has been my experience that it also leads to developing a social network which can result in job leads and employment opportunities.
In Unified Sports, teams consist of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. I was particularly drawn to my son’s team, LIFE Force, and I watched them play with heart, dedication, determination and skill. They were well coached, trained and disciplined.
They came in fourth, missing the medal round after posting a 1-3 record. Each of their losses was decided by a basket. The play was physical- there were elbows, blocking and a player even took a fist to the face. It was a real basketball game and it was well refereed.
Their lone win, the last game played, came after an emotional pep talk by their coach to the team to remind them that they were playing for Chris, a team member who had recently died after a short bout with cancer.
There were hundreds of “feel good” moments for me and among them was the selfless passing of our son, Jon, the points he scored but nothing greater than the grace he displayed in losing. Of not being on the medal stand and telling me that while he wished they had won, he made “many new friends this season.”
Every time Jon sets foot on a basketball court, soccer field or a golf course, he enjoys “days in the sun” and they are more important than a moment.
This originally appeared on the blog, Zeh Lezah of the Ruderman Family Foundation.