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World Games offer opportunity for change, compassion

LOS ANGELES -- "The dream that I've been dreaming is happening right now."

Brightfield Shadi, a 25-year-old from Botswana, stood before a media contingent Saturday afternoon and talked about what the Special Olympics has given him.

He wasn't speaking specifically of the silver medal he won at the 2011 World Summer Games in Athens. Or his current job as a coach of the unified volleyball team that will compete in Los Angeles over the next nine days. Or his role as an international global messenger, which afforded him leadership training and public speaking opportunities such as this one.

Rather, it was the improved health care he received through Special Olympics that identified a simple problem with his eyesight that had made it nearly impossible for him to succeed in school.

"Now, I can do anything," Shadi said. "Look at me now."

If the Special Olympics is looking for a new slogan, Shadi's statement might be an apt one. With the exposure from these World Games, the first to be held in the United States in 16 years, its 6,500 competitors from 165 nations are counting on the audience looking at them now.

Buoyed on Saturday with the announcement of the single largest private donation in the Special Olympics' 47-year history -- a $25 million gift by Paychex chairman and philanthropist Tom Golisano that will expand health care services around the world for people with intellectual disabilities -- those associated with the World Games are hoping the platform will enlighten those who still cling to old stereotypes and misconceptions.

Coming on the heels of a recent poll by Shriver Media and Special Olympics International -- which revealed such findings as 1 in 5 Americans saying they would not be comfortable hiring a person with an intellectual disability, and 9 in 10 believing people would terminate a pregnancy or give the child up for adoption if they found their child had an intellectual disability -- many consider the next nine days in L.A. critically important.

Maria Shriver, whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, began the Special Olympics as a summer camp in her backyard 50 years ago, spoke of nearly half of those polled admitting they were fearful of those with intellectual disabilities and even fewer who counted someone with an intellectual disability among their friends.

That many still view the Special Olympics as that nice little get-together at which the "special-needs kids" get ribbons for trying their best is reason enough to pay attention and become better informed. That the R-word is still used more than 24,000 times each day on Twitter is ample reason to become more compassionate.

If you can find many with intellectual disabilities, or their parents, who tell you they or their children were not teased or mistreated growing up, you have found a rare example indeed. The stories are told almost a matter of factly about being stuck in a proverbial corner in classrooms or ignored on playgrounds, often rescued by the pure sensibilities of Special Olympics.

Alise Hazelett, a 28-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who will compete in bowling for the U.S., was the team manager for the girls' basketball team in high school, no chance of competing on a team herself.

"Had she been playing sports like everyone else, who knows how much more she would have developed," said Hazelett's mother, Donna, a Special Olympics county coordinator. Without the chance to compete, there was the isolation.

"You just don't have friends," Donna added. "Nobody ever calls, ever, ever, ever."

It might surprise many to learn that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the largest and most medically underserved disability groups in the world; they have dramatically higher rates of preventable diseases, chronic pain and suffering and premature death in every country around the world.

People with Down syndrome are often used as human bombs in some Middle Eastern countries, according to Special Olympics International. Children have been tied in closets, not because their parents were abusive, but for their own safety from those in their village who would prey on them.

During Saturday night's opening ceremony, there were examples everywhere of the human spirit. There is the team from Nepal, whose five athletes fought for months to secure travel arrangements after a massive earthquake this past April killed nearly 10,000 people.

There is Wilfried Negele, a 61-year-old German running the half marathon.

There are Michael Destouche, 49, and Stephanie Laronde, 25, leaving home for the first time as members of a nine-person delegation from Dominica, a country that marvels at the level of support U.S. athletes receive.

"There's not much publicity, not much support," said Madine Pierre-Louis, an assistant track and field coach.

When Kennedy Shriver opened the first Special Olympic World Games in 1968 with 1,000 athletes from 26 U.S. states and Canada competing at Chicago's Soldier Field, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press and came scarcely a decade after that those with intellectual disabilities were not being educated at all.

It was a dark time in American history. Violent images of Vietnam glowed in everyone's living room. Seven weeks earlier, Kennedy Shriver's brother, Bobby, was assassinated. A month after those first Games, the Democratic National Convention sparked riots between police and protestors in the Windy City. Not such a far cry from the tone of today's headlines and cynicism.

"It makes a lot of sense that these Games began in America, for we are a nation founded on the principle that all of us are created equal," President Obama said in a message to athletes via satellite Saturday night. "We are a nation built on the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because of you, the athletes participating today and those who came before you, that fundamental principle and promise has reached people all over the world."

It is hard to quibble with the part about reaching people all over the world.

"I hope we get more friends," Negele said. "From Munich to Hamburg, from Berlin to Stuttgart, I am very proud to be here."