The 1960s were a distinct time of revolutionary social change. As the feminist and civil rights movements swept the nation, unprecedented advancements were made. However, one social movement of the 1960s is often forgotten: the disability rights movement and one of its driving forces, the Special Olympics.
This summer, Chicago will host the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Special Olympics, in honor of the first-ever competition that was held at Soldier Field in 1968. The festivities taking place include a four-mile torch run, Unified Soccer Cup Competition, Global Day of Inclusion, and various music concerts.
Hosting the fiftieth anniversary celebration marks an achievement for Chicago, where one in five residents report having a disability. The last time Chicago hosted the International Games was in 1970, forty-eight years ago.
Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly said in a statement, “The Chicago Park District is proud to have played a part in the founding of the Special Olympics and to carry on the great legacy.”
Special Olympics first began in 1965 when Illinois Justice Anne Burke led local programs for children with disabilities at West Pullman Park and nine other locations in the Chicago Park District system. “So many people worked so hard to make the eyes and ears of others realize that people with disabilities are contributing members of society,” says Justice Burke.
Less than three years later, Burke reached out to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of then-President John F. Kennedy, and received funding for the first-ever International Special Olympics Summer Games held at Soldier Field in Chicago. During this time period, people with disabilities were constantly viewed as incapable of everyday activities, much less athletic competitions.
The first-ever Special Olympics Games in 1968 were revolutionary for combating the stigma facing people with disabilities. Eileen Guinane, Senior Program and Events Facilitator for Special Olympics Chicago, told the Gate, “Special Olympics was at the forefront of pushing the idea that people with disabilities are capable and can do a lot.”
Many of the competitors, hailing from over twenty-six US states and Canada, required government pardons to leave the institutions where they lived and travel to Chicago. In the same manner, volunteer lifeguards closely monitored all swimming events at the competition, under the belief that swimming would prove too dangerous for people with cognitive disabilities. However, time and time again, throughout the games, such prejudices were proved wrong.
Although discrimination based on race and gender was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were no such laws protecting people with disabilities.
“It’s hard for us to imagine,” explains Guinane. “It was very different. Families weren’t able to bring [their children] out in public or to the neighborhood pool. It was up to the specific community to accept them, and that wasn’t [very] often.”
Such stigma pervaded all classes of society, including the Kennedy family itself. Rosemary, sister of Eunice Shriver and John F. Kennedy, had a mild learning disability and her family arranged for her to undergo one of the first ever lobotomies in the hopes of improving her condition. As a result, Rosemary became permanently incapacitated, unable to walk or speak. She was immediately placed in a mental institution, where disabled individuals were often sent away to be segregated from society. Many believe Rosemary was the inspiration for Eunice Shriver to provide the first funding for the Special Olympics.
During the first Special Olympics Games, the one thousand participating athletes received tips from an honorary coaching staff, consisting of renowned athletes such as Jesse Owens and Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph. For many of the competing athletes, it was the first time in their lives they heard applause. At the closing ceremonies, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley turned, and remarked to Shriver, “Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.”
Since its first competition, Special Olympics has now expanded to over 172 countries and offers programs and training to over 4.9 million athletes—free of charge. Guinane stresses that Special Olympics is inclusive no matter what an individual’s disability. “Regardless, you’ve got a family in us,” she says.
"The fiftieth anniversary will be a pivotal moment for Special Olympics,” says Burke. “We aim to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. For our fiftieth anniversary, we are inviting all to join us as we shape a more accepting and inclusive future."
Guinane says those who want to get involved with the 2018 Games in Chicago can contact her to volunteer at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the 50th Anniversary website and Facebook page to learn more.
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