Discourses of Emancipation and Liberation at the Special Olympics 2003 World Summer Games in Ireland, Damien Brennan


The oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity, become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin Books, 1972, p.21)

At the Special Olympics Summer Games held in Ireland in 2003, a group of individuals who had wronged no person announced that their oppression was no longer acceptable and from now would stop. This was not short of a moment of liberation, a revolution, and yet there was no violence, no counter-oppression and no hate. In that moment of beauty a group of people, who have been marginalised by civil society, liberated both themselves and their oppressors from an unhealthy relationship based on nonsensical notions of superiority, which were cloaked behind the palatable disguise of pity, charity and paternalism. The discourses of emancipation and liberation at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics articulated loudly the struggle being fought each day by people living with intellectual disability, in solidarity with their families, in endeavoring to secure their rights as citizens. While the opening ceremony was a beautiful evening enhanced by dance, music, fireworks, its political nature should not be missed.

The battle cry of ‘Share the Feeling’ was not presented as a request for permission or a call for charity. It was an invitation to celebrate in the emancipation of a group of individuals who have traditionally been prevented from enjoying normal entitlements of citizenship. This slogan, ‘Share the feeling’, entered public discourse, having been seen on billboards, heard on the radio and shown on TV. Starting with a ripple, the feeling grew and was passed from person to person. Once a momentum was gathered this feeling was no longer a ripple but a frenzied storm—an epidemic of the possible, which touched men, women and children in every part of this island. A realisation was generated in each one of us of the potential contribution of all individuals in our society and, more significantly, our potential contribution to creating a society that can realise and benefit from this.

The uniqueness of this occasion can be understood in the context of the lack of anger and counter-oppression directed towards the communities who have historically failed to afford full civic and human rights to people living with an intellectual disability. On the contrary, this traditionally oppressed group of people (those with an intellectual disability) invited their oppressors (the society that marginalized this group) to celebrate in the marking of their refusal to continue to be oppressed. This liberation struggle required considerable strength and endurance, coupled with an ability to remain positive and not to lower one’s horizons to those of the society that has denied equal citizenship. This strength without aggression was articulated, during the opening ceremony by Rita Lawlor (Special Olympian and Board Member): ‘You should remember that we never stop trying, we know how to win, we know how to have a party.’ Drawing on Rita Lawlor’s vision, Denis O’Brien (Chairman of the Games Organising Committee) illuminated how society is enriched by such vision:

Special Olympic athletes, our lives have been touched by you…. Barriers that have once divided our society are now dissolved…. In the words of my friend and fellow Games Director, Rita Lawlor: ‘before Special Olympics I was too shy to speak out loud but I am now not afraid, we are not children, we are adults, we have opinions, and we should be listened to’…. Every town in Ireland … has come out in their thousands, in their millions … they are honored to stand side by side with you as full citizens of the world. Our wish has been that the Olympic torch would ignite a new beginning where men and women with a learning disability would take their place as citizens of the world, and the opportunity of working every day alongside all others who enjoy the rites and responsibilities of being fully integrated citizens.

Such discourses of liberation mobilised Irish society to participate in the celebration of the Special Olympics and in the call for the removal of barriers preventing full enjoyment of citizenship of people in Ireland who have an intellectual disability. This transcended the usual patterns of discourse associated with intellectual disability, which traditionally revolve around charity and pity. The significance of this moment of liberation was expressed with passion by Eunice Kennedy Shriver (Founder of Special Olympics), who not only grasped the potential for change for people with intellectual disabilities, but noted how this approach to liberation could be adopted in challenging oppression and resolving conflicts globally.

I am proud … to come … to a place where people with an intellectual disability no longer have to be afraid to live their own dreams, tonight in each athletes’ story the Irish dream of freedom, dignity and justice is fulfilled…. Think of the families, think of the mothers who love their children but feel so desperately alone, their children have done nothing wrong, committed no crime, and perpetuated no injustice, they are the worlds most innocent victims and they suffer only because they are different…. The world said that people with intellectual problems should not be seen in public, tonight you are part of the year’s largest sporting event and the world is watching all the things you do over the next two weeks…. To that world that has known so much fear and division in recent years, let it be know, what you seek here in Ireland. If you seek joy come see the special Olympian, if you see peace and understanding come see the athletes of the Special Olympics and if you seek courage or stele or strength do come and see the athletes of the Special Olympics…. If we follow the power of love that the special Olympians show we will change the world.

In such discourses, no apology was given for demanding the removal of the barriers that block full human existence and no permission was sought to fully participate in society. Even veterans and masters of liberation struggles such as President Nelson Mandela came and expressed their awe at the unique combination of fearless strength and love demonstrated by the Special Olympics athletes:

The Special Olympics gives telling testimony of the indestructibility of the human spirit and of our capacity to overcome hardships and obstacles. You, the athletes, are ambassadors of the greatness of human kind. You inspire us to know that all obstacles to human achievement and progress are surmountable. Your achievements remind us of the potential to greatness that resides in every one of us.

The event that was the Special Olympics World Games was a demonstration of the possible. A different kind of being was proposed, based on relationships that do not construct difference as a problem. The Special Olympians dared to imagine a society where the individual is celebrated and citizens support each other in realising their full potential. While this vision was generated within the context of the struggle for basic rights for people living with an intellectual disability, it transcends that context and offers a way of being that has the potential for replacing oppressive relationships anywhere in the world. This approach would appear to have real value over the discredited military force interventions which are extensively relied on in the pursuit of liberation, or the resolution of political conflicts.

One year has now passed since that beautiful evening in Croke Park and we must consider the impact of that moment of liberation. While the public profile of people living with an intellectual disability has been enhanced, with a degree of greater access to education and public employment, more central aspects of citizenship—such as marriage and reproduction—have not entered public discourse in Ireland to date. Those who joined in the celebration of the liberation of people living with an intellectual disability will have their intentions challenged in the coming years. Were they there for the music and good feeling of the evening? Or did they really believe in and support the emancipation that was happening on that evening in 2003? This will be demonstrated in the coming years through the level of public support for people with intellectual disabilities in their continued struggle to secure their rights to all aspects of citizenship, including areas of life such as power over personal decision making, rights-based education and health, employment rights, political participation, marriage and reproduction.

While it was billed as a sporting occasion, it would appear that the Special Olympics was a ‘not-so-quiet revolution’.


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