Address to the National Association of Secondary School Principals

San Antonio, TX | February 9, 1987

Many of you may think that Special Olympics is a basketball game or a track meet held every so often. Or you hear about "The Games" every year. Or you think, "Gee, isn't that nice, they take those retarded kids out to play sports and give them medals and ribbons." Well, that's only a small part of the story.

Thank you Dr. Kiernan. It is a privilege to be here and an honor to be with such a distinguished group of panelists....Congratulations.

I also want to recognize the Executive Director of "Texas Special Olympics", a man who runs a sports program for over 21,000 athletes.!!!

His athletes don't come to him the way they come to a high school or college coach. He has to go out to them every day of the year! So, let's give some applause to a teacher with a huge outreach into every part of Texas... Dennis Poulos.

Coming to this Convention I feel I am coming home. Secondary school principals were a daily part of my life 30 years ago. At that time I was President of the Chicago Board of Education. For five years I almost lived in high schools, elementary schools, junior colleges, and even teacher colleges. We had them all...from kindergarten through college. I loved those days, those principals, those teachers, and even those problems.

It was, in fact, almost 30 years ago to this date, that "Time" magazine published a story I'll never forget. The story told of a 9-year old boy, the son of our U.S. Ambassador to Greece. The boy's name was Clinton. He was spastic ..."he was a brilliant lad" recalled a friend "and deeply appealing".

The Queen of Greece grew fond of the boy while the Ambassador and his family were stationed in Greece, and often asked him for long visits to the Royal Palace in Athens. During these visits young Clinton played freely with Queen Frederika's two children. One day, Prince Constantine said to his little American friend: "My sister and I have been talking about you, and we have decided that you must be the favorite pupil of Jesus."

"What do you mean?" asked Clinton.

"Well," replied the Prince, "you know how it is. In school the best pupil is always given the hardest problems to solve. God gave you the hardest problem of all, so you must be his favorite pupil." With sudden tears in his eyes, the crippled child replied: "I don't believe you!"

The Prince answered with all the finality of a child's argument: "I don't care what you think. My sister and I think you are."

That night the Queen sat on the edge of Clint's bed as she tucked him in. She said: "I heard what the Prince told you today, and I agree with him, believe you are a favorite pupil of Jesus." For a moment, two troubled eyes stared back at her. Then Clint said: "I don't believe it! I won't believe it, unless my Daddy says that he believes it!"

Later Queen Frederika told the Ambassador the story. The Ambassador shook his head and said: "I can't tell him I believe that. I cannot believe that a good and just God would do that to my little boy." And the Ambassador burst into tears!

That was thirty years ago. We've come a long way since then. Parents of a retarded or crippled child don't have to burst into tears today. BUT we've got a long way still to go. There are 7,000,000 mentally retarded persons in the USA. "Special Olympics" has successfully touched probably 2 million of them. We have about one million in our program right now. But millions are not being reached successfully by "Special Olympics", or by schools, group homes, institutions, or by any other means. Educators, social workers, politicians, philanthropists have miles to go before we can even hope to say that every afflicted person (not just young people) is receiving adequate attention or care.

That's why I have come here today, happily accepting your invitation to speak to the Secondary School Principals of America. You, the principals, and all classroom teachers, have dedicated yourselves to a life of service. You are certainly among the most valuable citizens of our country. Without high school principals and teachers we never could have created and succeeded with the "Peace Corps", or with "Head Start", or with the "Job Corps", or with "Upward Bound", or with VISTA, or with "Neighborhood Health Centers" for the Poor", or with "Neighborhood Legal Services for the Poor". In all of those programs, from "parent and child centers" for 3-5 year old children, up to "Foster Grandparents" working with 70 and 80 year old people, teachers and principals played a crucial role.

Once again as in those old days I have a challenge to place before big as the Peace Corps, or bigger; as large as "Head Start" or larger; more mysterious, more magical, more transformative of society than any secular activity I've ever seen or heard of.

That's what "Special Olympics" is. And I'm asking you and every school system to join it. How can you join Special Olympics? 

I suggest that you join it by offering the Special Olympics Training Curriculum in your all your schools!


So that never again in our country will anyone burst into tears and cry out as our Ambassador in Greece cried out in his despair, "I cannot believe that a good and just God would allow my little boy to be a spastic" be mentally be different.

Yes, I just said "curriculum". The Special Olympics Training Curriculum.

Many of you may think that Special Olympics is a basketball game or a track meet held every so often. Or you hear about "The Games" every year. Or you think, "Gee, isn't that nice, they take those retarded kids out to play sports and give them medals and ribbons."

Well, that's only a small part of the story. The HEART of the story is sitting right on your chairs -- not just you yourself but the Sports Skills Program Guide which was lying on your seat when you came in.

Please take a look at your copy. You won't see this book reviewed in "The New York Times" Or the "San Antonio Light", BUT these books are best sellers! We can't print them fast enough, and we can't keep them in stock.

And they are printed in five languages, including our newest edition in Mandarin Chinese. These books can be the backbone of your curriculum.

We offer twenty-two official Special Olympics Sport Guides for winter as well as summer sports. They are being used by special ed teachers as well as by coaches, by parents as well as high school volunteer students. They could be adopted for use by every secondary school in our country. For the mentally retarded these books open a whole new world of activities, where they meet normal people and make friends, where they learn skills, and enjoy success. And for normal people these books open eyes and hearts to experiences rarely before enjoyed by most human beings.

Let me explain: Thirty years ago the "experts" said the mentally retarded weren't coordinated, they couldn't follow directions, learn the rules of a game, participate in team sports. They'll get hurt, we were told, playing hockey, or basketball, or soccer, or skiing. They're not coordinated enough to figure skate or do gymnastics. They can't run 400 yards, let alone a mile.

I heard all those statements myself. But we learned by trial and error that all those expert opinions were wrong!!!

We learned that the mentally retarded:

  1. could not only run 400 yards but even the mile and 2 mile races;
  2. could not only swim 50 meters they could swim 400 and 800 meters and participate in relay races;
  3. could not only play floor hockey six to a side, but soccer with full teams, basketball, and softball;
  4. could not only run, swim, and jump, but they could perform gymnastic routines, ski down hill, figure skate, jump dance, give speeches, and take on full-time jobs in parks and recreation facilities where they now teach sports to normal children!
  5. and we found out that old age was no barrier for them...Women and men in their 50's, 60's, and 70's showed us they, too, could run 400 yard races, swim, and enjoy themselves in sports.

Most of all we found out that they are pure amateurs. There's no money under the table in Special Olympics. There's no proselytizing, no Alumni interference, and no drugs. In fact, Special Olympics may be the only international, drug-free, non-political, and non-violent, sports program in the world!

All this is only a little bit of what we have learned from the mentally retarded and from Special Olympics. I haven't even mentioned "Our Marvelous Moments", as we call them at Special Olympics headquarters: -

  1. The day the phone rang and Loretta Claiborne's coach told us the unbelievable news that Loretta, a Special Olympic runner from York, Pennsylvania, had just finished the Boston Marathon ahead of 350 other women!
  2. OR

  3. The evening in Dublin, Ireland when the Irish athletes from northern Ireland marched past the reviewing stand in front of the President of Ireland to receive a standing ovation from all the southern Irish in attendance at our European Games. Special Olympics is the only public activity the northern and southern Irish do together these days. They march together under our flag, not their own.
  4. OR

  5. The letter from the Crown Prince of Jordan telling us that his country was going to send a young, single, sports expert to our country to study athletics for the retarded. As he said, she will be one of the few single female teachers to have ventured abroad from Jordan for specialized training, at government expense!

Are the mentally retarded helping to unite the world and free us all from superstition, fear envy? I'll guarantee you they are. 


The core of the Special Olympics program is "year-round training", developing greater levels of physical fitness, and specific sports skills.

That's what we want to see in the official offerings of more and more American school systems. A million athletes take part in Special Olympics, in over 65 nations around the world. And we can't even put a number on those we've "graduated" from Special Olympics programs into regular school athletics.

We offer sports training to any retarded person, age 8 and up, regardless of the extent of their disability. 20,000 communities in the United States have Special Olympics programs.

We're sanctioned by the United States Olympic Committee, one of only two groups to be authorized to use the name "Olympics". The National Governing Bodies of every sport recognize Special Olympics.

We've got half a million Volunteers -- coaches, chaperones, publicists, fundraisers, families -- that run Special Olympics -- the largest, sustained volunteer movement in the world.

We never charge our athletes or their families any participation fees. We train and certify coaches to train our athletes. All these qualities have made us the fastest growing amateur
 sports organization in the world!

I could go on and on telling you about Special Olympics in Korea and Japan, in The People's Republic of China, in Kenya, in Zimbabwe and Nigeria in The Seychelles Island of the Indian Ocean, in Poland, France, Belgium, Portugal, Child, Panama, yes, even in Cuba ... but you've heard enough.

Why is it successful?

Because it works!

It works for retarded people, and it's "therapy" for normal people.

I want to read you an excerpt from a letter written by a sophomore at the University of Virginia. The young woman wrote to her mother: "Saturday I participated in a Special Olympics competition which was held at an area high school. I had two athletes assigned to me. I made sure they found their various events and cheered them on. What a joy it was to be a part of their lives. People whose lives are so simple. It makes you really examine your own life and realize how ridiculous most of our concerns are. Mom, it was one of the most rewarding days of my life. I have never felt so wanted."

Where else can you get such a feeling? Isn't that how we'd all like to spend our days?

It used to be that the retarded were shut away in institutions. Their heartbroken families were often embarrassed, and doctors said there was no hope for "medical breakthroughs" or for any so-called, "quality of life". In the old days they called their children and adults with mental retardation, “idiots”, and "morons", "imbeciles".

Today, we call them mentally retarded, or neurologically impaired, or handicapped, or learning disabled, or developmentally disabled. And we argue about mainstreaming, cross-categorical classrooms, reclassification, adaptive behavior, IEPs, and integration, and PL92-1242.

BUT: -- Please let me share a thought with you. The parents of retarded children don't give a whistle about all the jargon, the bureaucracy, all the labels. They want somebody, somewhere, to help their child take part in life.

You know in every high school, every kid has a chance to be part of something, to take pride in some particular activity in which he or she is involved -like the football team, the drama club, the school yearbook, or the prom committee. What is there for our retarded students to take part in? What activities can they join in after school? Where do they belong?

In some schools they find that sense of belonging in "Special Olympics". It's like a club for them to join. Right here in Texas, in Grand Prairie - Superintendent Hobbs Williams has given unqualified backing to Special Olympics within his school system. His school district assumes financial responsibility for all eligible students, and provides Special Olympics coaching.

In Boston, Mayor Flynn has launched, after-school, Special Olympics training for all Boston Public Schools. They plan to serve all their 12,000 students who are mentally retarded.

In the state of North Carolina, 142 of 146 school systems are involved in some way with Special Olympics.

At Oakton High School in Virginia, the students -- on their own – started what they call a "Partners Club" with Special Olympians. The students work as coaches or "buddies" with Special Olympians in both sports practice, and in mainstream social events! That Virginia program was so successful we tested it in other schools, and it works. So now at the Special Olympics International Headquarters we are launching it around the world. The same students who started the program at Oakton High School joined our staff, for a time, to write the program plan, the promotional literature, the script for a video program -- and it's rolling out!

In a growing number of colleges and universities, credit courses are being offered in Special Olympics management and training programs. In Philadelphia, Special Olympics is an integral part of the education curriculum at both the elementary and secondary school levels. Teachers are given free time to attend Special Olympics competition with their athletes. Sports facilities are provided free of charge. And their school buses transport athletes and volunteers to training clinics and Games.

In a small rural location -- Pasquotank Public Schools, in rural North Carolina, they can't match the Philadelphia School budget; but they find ways to get the job done. Without their school system, there would be no extra curricula program at all for the mentally retarded in that area. With the school system leading the way Special Olympics is booming.

What happens in schools that don't have "Special Olympics"? The teachers often say, "I just don't know what to do with these kids." So, the handicapped students frequently end up "standing around a lot" in gym class, or sitting on the bench, or being ball girl or boy.

When schools don't offer Special Olympics, parents sometimes try to pick up the slack, taking our sports book and learning how to teach their children on their own. Sometimes service organizations like Civilian International -- ask us to train and certify their members as Special Olympics Coaches. One major corporation, United Technologies, in Hartford, Connecticut, actually has an employee program for coach certification, and gives paid vacation time to their people with Special Olympics programs.

What motivates a company to do something like that? Where is the "almighty bottom line" in that boardroom decision? I'll tell you where.

United Technologies gets back from those employees who work with Special Olympics -- (on company time, mind you!) -- far more than they contribute!! They get loyalty, better morale, a sense of unity and participation, better exercise and health for the employees, fewer days off for sick leave and the un definable feeling one gets when he or she simply goes beyond the sphere of oneself.

So you see, Special Olympics is for everybody. For the retarded ... the non-retarded ... teachers, coaches ... families ... corporate moguls, civic groups ... communities...neighborhoods and nations...

Think of the possibilities when a partnership is forged between schools and corporations and their communities. The opportunities are limited only by your imagination.

Schools can establish "Partner's Clubs" and involve non-handicapped students with Special Olympians. Research shows that when a non-handicapped person and handicapped person interact on a one-to-one basis lasting relationships develop. These relationships break down misconceptions associated with handicaps and promote positive attitudes. As you all know, breaking down attitudinal barriers is crucial to integrating handicapped persons into the mainstream of society.

I urge you to consider establishing "Partner's Clubs" in your own high schools. They will benefit both your handicapped and non-handicapped students. Call us if you decide to start a Club, and we will send you a Club Leader's manual which outlines ways to get a Club started and keep it going.

Schools can also use Special Olympics programs to meet the physical conditioning needs of normal students. We offer year-round programs in sports training and competition in 22 Olympic-type sports. And we have learned that our Sports Skills Guides are effective in your regular physical education curriculum. Coaches and physical education teachers tell us these guides are excellent resource materials for a students I.E.P., and as lesson plans.

Schools can take advantage of 'Special Olympics Training Schools and offer these as in-service programs for classroom teachers. Several years ago we developed a series of Training Schools designed to help Special Ed teachers learn how to teach specific sports to students who are mentally retarded. Several colleges and universities throughout the country offer either continuing education units or credits for these training schools (University of Wisconsin at Lacrosse, University of Southern Maine, Kansas State University, University of Rhode Island, California State at Hayward, Central Michigan).

Schools can open their facilities for Special Olympics practices. If you would provide use of your gymnasium, or swimming track for Special Olympics, Special Olympics could provide volunteers to come into the school to train the Special Olympians.

Special Olympics is primarily a volunteer program. Volunteers do everything in Special Olympics. I know the notion of using volunteers is not a new idea: most schools make full use of them. Special Olympians can help bring more volunteers -- community residents -- into the schools.

The support of the worldwide Special Olympics organization is standing by, at your beck and call, to help you in every way possible. So, might I add is the leadership of the 4000 schools already working with Special Olympics! Many of them are here today; and on behalf of our athletes and their families, I want to extend my thanks to each and every one of them, and the people who work with them in towns, villages, boroughs, cities, and counties all across the nation.

I hope I have answered the question put to me today: "Special Olympics And The Schools: -- A Perfect Match?"

My answer is, they are a match ... And, I believe, even more than a match...They are or should be a marriage...a lifetime marriage with progeny potentially too numerous to count.

Ten years ago no one would have predicted we would have more than a million Special Olympians practicing and participating day in and day out around the world. Now the People's Republic of China and India have welcomed "Special Olympics". Training is underway; Games are being held; and an immense world...