Last Friday the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights announced that school districts would now have a legal obligation to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular athletic activities. Special Olympics will work to offer our assistance and our Unified Sports Program as an option to those schools looking for meaningful ways to make things happen. I don’t want to dwell on the law, nor the possibilities right now, but I would like to focus on something that was said to me – “Just because athletic departments are opening a door doesn’t mean anyone will be welcoming them in.”
Welcoming us in. Five years ago Special Olympics New Mexico was approached by the leaders of French Mortuary, who wanted to celebrate the lives and achievements of our athletes and families by honoring them during the University of New Mexico’s Lobo Games. We started the “French Athlete of the Game” with Lobo football and men’s basketball and then expanded to women’s basketball, soccer, volleyball, baseball, and softball. The first year our athletes were strangers as they proudly walked to mid-court or mid-field during a time-out or half-time. As the announcer would introduce them and give a short bio of their Special Olympics accomplishments, Lobo audiences were relatively inattentive.
The door, however, remained open as French continued to partner with us – athlete after athlete – game after game. They would measure the level of engagement – make changes in the timing of things – create strategies to involve the students more, and today – because of that French Family investment that was made on all levels of their administration – it’s a far greater experience for ALL of us. Let this be a shining example of what could become of this new law and those being encouraged to embrace it.