Special Olympics Australia is part of a global sporting community for people with an intellectual disability.
Special Olympics has grown from a backyard camp into a global movement that has been transforming the lives of people with an intellectual disability for almost 50 years. The global sporting community was pioneered by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister to US President John F Kennedy as well as Rosemary who had an intellectual disability. Today, Special Olympics supports over 5 million athletes in 177 countries.
Special Olympics began in Australia in 1976 when many people with an intellectual disability were shut in institutions. While this is no longer the norm in Australia, we continue to seek public support to ensure that people with an intellectual disability are not shut out. By helping us give them opportunities to play sport, together we can open the door to personal achievement, pride and inclusion for some of the marginalised and isolated members of our community.
Like the Olympics and Paralympics, Special Olympics believe in the power of sport to create a better world. Each organisation has a slightly different focus and very different levels of awareness and funding.
The Olympics is an iconic and well supported major sporting event for elite athletes.
The Paralympics is a major sporting event for elite athletes, mainly with a physical disability with awareness and funding on the rise.
Special Olympics is a year-round multi-sports program for people with an intellectual disability – of all capabilities – who also have access to robust competition pathways including our World Games which is hosted on a four-year cycle in summer and winter sports. We still haven’t had our time to shine in awareness and funding.
There are 850,000 Australians with an intellectual disability and/or autism and another person is diagnosed every two hours.
Generally speaking, people with an intellectual disability find it hard to do what are considered basic tasks, like reading, handling money or catching public transport. It doesn't mean that they can’t learn to do these things, they just may learn differently or need more time and support to succeed.
Young athlete Brittney Neill (VIC) who has autism sums up what having an intellectual disability means to her: “I concentrate on what I can do and not what people think I can’t. Really, I can do everything anyone else can do. It just takes me longer to learn and process information. I just know I have to keep trying, so that’s what I do to achieve my dreams. When I’m running I think a tiger is after me and I say in my head: ‘Go, go, go, go’.”
Unlike those with a physical disability, it is not always obvious when a person has an intellectual disability. What is obvious at Special Olympics Australia is that many have hidden talents that sport can help them uncover.
At the 2016 Special Olympics World Summer Games in LA, 15-year-old Brittney Neill was the youngest competitor on the Australian team. It was her first international event and she had her dreams set on a medal in athletics, and she didn’t disappoint. With her mum and grandpa cheering her on from the stands she won two bronze and one silver medal on the track.
According to Brittney’s mum Adine, “Brittney was always very shy but the World Games changed that. It gave her an opportunity that I never thought possible and our family are very proud and appreciative of every little thing the volunteers of Special Olympics Australia have done to make our daughters life better. Her confidence is now through the roof!”
Since the World Games, Brittney has returned to school, taken up circus skills, become a regular on the public speaking circuit and won the Junior Sportsperson of the Year at the Victorian Disability Sport & Recreation Awards. Not bad for someone who previously avoided the spotlight.