On July 12th, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was posthumously presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs. Upon receiving the award on behalf of his mom and the entire Shriver family, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver sent a simple message on a simple concept to the world: “Choose to include.”
Over the course of history in so many instances, individuals with intellectual disabilities have not been included. While there are positive examples of progress, where people have chosen to “include” individuals with intellectual disabilities, we still have a long way to go. I often assume that everyone shares the same perspective on what it means to be included, but it’s a false assumption – so let me share with you some examples of what I would describe as positive inclusion.
Special Olympics Maryland is grateful to Constellation and the PGA Tour Champions for “choosing to include” us and our athletes as a part of the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Caves Valley Golf Club. As part of the tournament, we hosted a six-hole Unified Putting Challenge with six teams consisting of one Special Olympics Maryland athlete, who served as Team Captain, and four Constellation leaders. SOMD athlete Bob Strunge got the event off to great start by serving as emcee for a brief opening ceremony. For me the best result of the six-hole tournament was active interaction between each SOMD athlete team captain and their Constellation team members. They cheered each other on and engaged in real conversation. Bob and fellow SOMD athlete Stephanie Baker added to the excitement when they holed out speedy curling 20 foot putts for a “hole-in-one.” Brian Nehman from WBAL 1090 AM and Pete Gilbert from WBAL TV 11 played in the event, as well. Pete filed a great account of his team’s experience that included Josh Smith and Constellation team members Kevin Klages and Jorge Acevedo. This was a transformative experience for everyone involved.
According to a June 21, 2017 report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 only 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed. So while there are some examples of exceptional firms who have inclusive employment practices, it’s fair to say that when it comes to employment, “Choose to Include” has not yet become the widespread norm. Chris Warren has decided to attack this head on by developing Conglom8, a fledgling business where “inclusion” will be a primary pillar of the mission. Chris has a son who trains and competes in Special Olympics in Howard County. Chris coaches a number of sports including flag football and softball. As a parent and coach, Chris knows about the lack of opportunities afforded to his son and fellow athletes.
Chris is a successful entrepreneur and he has decided to apply that experience to design a business model where individuals with intellectual disabilities can be employed, trained, supported and included as part of a team. Chris shared with me that in the model, at least 25% of the employees will be individuals with “special needs.” Conglom8 wants to control the creation & ownership of meaningful jobs along with specialized training academies. They plan to have retraining programs for job advancement and employee mentoring programs with co-workers. Conglom8’s philosophy is to have control over the jobs, the academies, and the advancement for the employees. Rather than wait for the business world to “Choose to Include,” Chris is creating the opportunity.
In my lifetime, the most powerful inclusive environment that I have experienced is our Special Olympics Unified Sports® program. We have invited youth and adults without intellectual disabilities to come be team members with our athletes. Over the last several years, we have taken steps to use Unified Sports® to create transformative experiences like the Constellation Senior Players Unified Putting Challenge designed to connect people who, without the event, would not otherwise interact with athletes. I shared the Conglom8 model because Chris Warren is taking similar steps; he is creating a business where the mission is focused on employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities that invites those without intellectual disabilities to be a part of the business and the mission.
So as Special Olympics approaches its 50th anniversary in 2018, “Choose to Include” will continue to be a vital theme and Unified Sports® an important program in advancing the vision and mission. In this issue, you can read about our athlete of the month, Kenny Long, who was recently selected to be part of Team Maryland as a member of the powerlifting team that will compete at the USA Games in Seattle in July 2018.
As we accelerate toward the end of summer, we continue our annual program with a Sailing competition on July 28th-29th and our Kayaking championship on August 26th. And guess what? We are halfway to the Plunge! We have upgraded our plungemd.com website, so get started now by forming a team or joining a team. You can also learn more about new fundraising event that The Chevy Chase Land Company is hosting in Bethesda…. Over The Edge… which will be held on September 30th.
Athletes have already started practicing in some of our fall sports and our staff and key leadership volunteers are working on annual and strategic plans that will continue to guide our athlete growth initiative designed to reach 20,000 athletes by 2025. I am always interested in hearing from our supporters so let me know what you think and if you are interested in learning how you can “choose to include,” please contact me by email at email@example.com.
Creating a world where opportunity is not limited by disability,
James C. Schmutz
President & CEO