KINGSTON—Two teams squared off against each other on the moist soccer field, one in red and the other in green. The play began and it was a game, a real one, as the crowd looked on and cheered. They shouted for their brothers and sons and friends as though a crowd at a bullfight. On this Saturday morning, they cheered for the participants of the Special Olympics.
“The Special Olympics is all about a celebration of acceptance and respect,” said Dennis DeJesus, CEO of the Special Olympics. “For many of our athletes, this event is the one opportunity to get away and vacation as a group away from home. It really is all about their camaraderie and friendship.”
The 2011 Summer Special Olympics, held annually at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center, offers numerous sports in which adults and children with intellectual disabilities compete. Over 1,500 athletes along with 500 coaches and 2,000 family members and friends gather, competing passionately and developing lasting friendships. The atmosphere which flows through the tents and fields is one of understanding and fun, and focus rests on completing the race, not on participants’ inabilities.
“It is important to teach everyone about inclusion,” said Joshua Duquette, a 15 year volunteer for the Wampanoag Warriors team. “We have an athlete, Evan Miller, who is a hell of a swimmer and Captain of the Lincoln High School swim team. I don’t think that in today’s society everyone knows what we do. They hear the word ‘disability’ and think that the athletes can’t do it. They can.”
Special Olympics athletes train year-round in order to prepare for the Summer Games, aided by athletic groups such as the Wampanoag Warriors or the centers which house and take care of them on a daily basis. Duquette has volunteered to assist Rhode Island participants in the national Special Olympics Games, held every four years in cities across the country. This past year, the event was held in Ames, Iowa.
“Rhode Island sends about thirty athletes to the national games who are the best of the best,” said Duquette. “The national games are the grand stage, upon which athletes can strive to compete and put their best foot forward. They are treated like athletes too. If they cannot finish, they are disqualified like any other event.”
“Our corporate sponsors, like CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts, donated $75,000 for uniforms and even flew our team out to Iowa on their own charter jets,” added Duquette. “The whole scheme is unbelievable and it has been the best experience of my life.”
Many parents who work hard throughout the year to provide for their children with intellectual disabilities also get the chance to share in the fun. Pat Bullock, leader of the Special Olympics East Providence team with her husband Jim, has two intellectually disabled children, one with Down Syndrome and the other with Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
“We didn’t have a team for 10 years,” said Bullock. “It is a lot of hard work, but when you see these kids get medals and have a good time, it is wonderful. We will do this forever because it gives you such a great feeling.”
The Special Olympics provides a venue for athletes to get free dental, hearing, and optical health screenings. Doctors from across Rhode Island donate their time to help participants get checked out who may not otherwise have access to sufficient health care.
“The doctors volunteer and do screenings, all free of charge,” said Gerri Walter, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Special Olympics. “[They provide] a fantastic opportunity for the athletes to make sure they are healthy and can compete at the highest level. The fact that the doctors are willing to come down and give up their Saturday is incredible.”
“This part of the population is not getting the same kind of health care as the rest of us,” said Roberta Singer, an audiologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders at URI. “The Special Olympics is a venue which provides screenings in a fun atmosphere.”
The doctors are also provided with mobile vans equipped with all of the instruments and medical material needed to administer the free screenings. If a particular athlete is found to need more medical aid for the future, he or she is referred to practices which can help them successfully and without high costs. Doctors, much like parents, also feel a part of the Special Olympics games and greatly enjoy what they do.
“One girl with a really severe eyeglass prescription could never see her coach or family from across the pool,” said Lori Duquette of Duquette Family Eyecare in Woonsocket. “We provided her with glasses and she was really happy to see again.”
“It is a nice thing we get to do,” said Duquette. “We get a lot of hugs.”
As the red team and the green team battled on the soccer field, struggling for every inch and doing their best to score the game winning goal, two players from opposite teams collided. The red team player lied there for a moment in obvious discomfort. Coaches rushed in to help him, picking him up off the ground and as he was taken off the field, the green team player walked by and patted him on the back in a gesture of camaraderie.
There are no disabilities here, just a soccer game played out to its fullest, with respect coming from both sides of the ball.