As the Special Olympics kicks off in South Korea, I am brought once again to question our standards of inclusivity in America. People with disabilities make up the largest minority in America and intellectual disabilities is the fastest growing percentage of that group among children. In our society, we tend to judge people by subjective standards, like aptitude and exterior beauty, often leaving out those who do not have "standard abilities." We admire and idolize people who are not particularly talented, unique, or outstanding, yet, people with different abilities are hidden from the spotlight -- particularly people with developmental disabilities.
I just returned from attending the Sundance Film Festival where so much attention is given to the stars. On one memorable day, I was walking down Main Street only to be run over by a crowd of young girls asking a passerby for pictures and autographs. When I asked who the star was, someone explained to me that he had participated in the reality TV sensation, The Bachelor. These are not the heroes we should be applauding. The beauty of Sundance is that it presents and highlights films that are not produced by the Hollywood machine and do not have the same opportunities as others in the mainstream. Similarly, the Special Olympics gives an opportunity to celebrate those excluded from the mainstream.
People with disabilities are highly under-represented in our mainstream media and culture. Our culture often shies away from people with different abilities. We feel safe with things that do not stand out. Even the Sundance hit film, The Sessions, which opened in theaters this year and received endless praise and press, could not draw a mass crowd, as the subject of a man in an iron lung took people out of their comfort zone. Ultimately, we would love to see all these films and individuals accepted in the mainstream. But sometimes, special platforms need to be created to draw attention to overlooked populations.
At the closing night of last year's ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, we threw a mixed abilities dance party. Cast members, guests and VIP's danced the night away. Wheelchairs were flying around the gallery, as all people with all levels of abilities danced together till security kicked us out. But one moment which made that night especially memorable was an audience member, a mother of a teenager with Cerebral Palsy was in tears, because her daughter was dancing publicly for the first time with a boy. Tears came to our eyes with the thought that such a basic privilege like witnessing your daughter dance with a man is so limited and often unreachable for some people.
For many, just another dance, but for some, a rare and moving milestone. This was yet another example that when inclusive opportunities are provided, our shared humanity shines.
By celebrating the Special Olympics we are celebrating the beauty that is in everyone, not the random standard that society is selling us to make us feel safe. We are asked to take a chance and see the amazing accomplishments of each individual. We are giving a chance for all children to enjoy the spirit of competition in sport. We are allowing all parents to cheer for their children's achievements. We are seeing the beauty that is in every living being.