Eunice Kennedy Shriver swims with youngsters at a day camp for mentally challenged children in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park in August 1964.

From the Backyard to the Global Stage – The History of the Special Olympics

The 2019 Special Olympics event, held in Abu Dhabi, marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics World Games. In light of such an incredible milestone, we wanted to delve deeper into the unique history of this uplifting global phenomenon.

Like so many of the world’s leading brands, including Amazon, Microsoft and Disney, (all created in their founder’s garages), The Special Olympics had very humble beginnings. The idea first came about in someone’s  backyard!

A Revolutionary Realisation

Camp Shriver was founded in the early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver received a phone call from a woman in Bethesda, Maryland complaining that she was unable to enrol her child into a local summer camp. As it happens, her child had been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities and unfortunately, at the time, mainstream camps did not accept such children. The reality being that even the public education system in the 1960s was unable to cater for and support children with intellectual disabilities. Interestingly, this was not the first call that Eunice had received concerning a similar problem. Enough was enough, and Eunice decided to take the matter into her own hands.

The aim was to provide a solution for children with intellectual disabilities. Eunice reached out to the wider community including various special educational needs (SEN) schools and clinics to try to reach those children that may be interested in attending a camp designed specifically for those with similar disabilities.

Camp Shriver was conceptualised in 1962, from Eunice’s farm in Maryland, Timberlawn. The first camp featured a variety of activities which included, horse riding, swimming, baseball and football (soccer).

Eunice established a solid relationship between high school counsellors and college students and was able to witness first-hand that children with intellectual disabilities had the ability to live, enjoy and experience life, just like other children, defying social stereotypes unjustly attributed to them by society.

Eunice stressed the importance of integration between mainstream children, and those with disabilities. Her own son Tim, at the age of three, developed a special bond at the camp with a young boy with intellectual disabilities named Wendell. A friendship blossomed and flourished as the pair completely immersed themselves in all activities offered at the camp.

“The thing about Camp Shriver was that it was fun,” said Tim about his time at the camp. “That’s what my parents are good at – making important things fun.”

For four years Camp Shriver was regarded as a hub for those children with intellectual disabilities to interact within an inclusive setting. However, it was clear that Camp Shriver was on the brink of a revolution. The camp’s success eluded to the potential that this format could be emulated on a larger scale.

Funds from the Kennedy Foundation were used to create programs for children with intellectual disabilities. Following the establishment and success of Camp Shriver, Eunice helped to finance other camps around the United States. In 1967, the Chicago Parks and Recreation Department presented a plan to hold a track meeting for children with intellectual disabilities, and Eunice attended. A teacher from the Parks System, Anne Burke, was the driving force behind the concept and insisted that children with intellectual disabilities from across the United States should be involved. The games were launched a year later in 1968 in Chicago, marking the inception of the Special Olympic World Games.

Today the Special Olympics has grown to become a globally recognised symbol for inclusion and comradery across borders. The latest games, taking place in Abu Dhabi between 14th and 21st March, the first to be held in the MENA region, will see over 7,500 athletes from 190 countries compete for glory.

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