I observed the roll-out of the Special Olympics MENA games from afar during my study abroad via NYU Abu Dhabi’s Confessions Facebook page, crowded with posts bemoaning the crowds, the noise, the use of student spaces and the many emails and posts asking for volunteers. What struck me the most about the event was NYUAD’s social media coverage of the event, especially on Instagram.
I won’t lie. I am not a big sports fan. However, I do use Instagram as a means of keeping up with important sporting events – especially during big national or regional competitions. From the Olympics to the National Swimming Championship, my feed is usually peppered with details about who won what, memorable quotes and other biographical information about victorious athletes.
NYUAD’s coverage of the Special Olympics has been a significant departure from the athletics coverage I am used to seeing. Ask me to name any of the athletes who won, or a single country that won a medal — I would be hard pressed to answer. What I do remember are the countless posts and stories illustrating how inspiring the athletes were and how wonderful the experience of volunteering at the games has been. This made me uncomfortable.
I do not want to condemn the Instagram pages for their efforts, because their hearts were clearly in the right place. NYUAD’s Office of Social Responsibility Instagram page, where I saw most of the posts, is one of my favorite accounts because of the stories they share and their efforts to promote volunteering on campus. Accordingly, it makes sense that the page would publish a series of stories about the Special Olympics volunteers.
However, I want to use this sporting event as a chance to provoke a discussion about the responsibilities of covering the Special Olympics MENA Games, especially as Abu Dhabi gets ready to host the 2019 World Special Olympics Summer Games.
Every single one of the Special Olympics participants is an elite athlete. Yet, the way NYUAD covered the matches and races does not speak to their incredible achievements. Rather than record their timings or accomplishments — the UAE’s own swimmer Abdullah Al Tajer won four medals in swimming
— we often choose to describe athletes’ accomplishments simply in relation to ourselves. How they have inspired us. How they have changed us.
We are inspired by abled athletes as well, of course. But we do not reduce their entire performance to its impact on us. We acknowledge their achievement and their work as independent from our own.
I was also prompted by the discussions that have developed following Stephen Hawking’s death to write this article. Actress Gal Gadot, among others, came under fire for her remembrance of Dr. Hawking. She tweeted
: “Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you’re free of any physical constraints.” Many were quick to take issue with the statement, calling her ableist for equating his disability with a lack of freedom. Twitter user Adam B. Zimmerman reponded
to Gadot by saying that people with disabilities “wish to be valued for what we CAN do, not pitied for what we can’t.”
Zimmerman’s reasoning is at the crux of understanding how to report on the Special Olympics.
Some argue that disability is a social construct because much of what a disabled person can not do is only due to the lack of accomodation created by that society. Special Olympics athletes, Stephen Hawking and many others who are considered disabled are not limited. In fact, they are often capable in many ways that others are not.
The MENA Special Olympics athletes are faced with a different a set of challenges than mainstream Olympic athletes are, but these do not limit their freedom. And they are not alone in facing obstacles. Mental and physical disabilities, injuries, loss of a loved one, financial constraints, discrimination — almost all athletes face challenges in their training, and those challenges should be recognized. The difficulties athletes face do not define them and we should refrain from acknowledging them solely through the scope of their limitations. We ought to acknowledge the determination and hard work of the Special Olympics athletes, not as a way to inspire ourselves but as a way to frame their own accomplishments, just as we would with any other athlete.
Next year, I hope to see fewer posts about what volunteers felt at the games. I want to know who won which medal and with what time. I want to celebrate the victories of athletes from Croatia and the U.S., where I am from, and those from the UAE, which I now call home.
I want to hear stories of athletes overcoming adversity — not just the adversity of disability, but also those of personal struggles in the sport, of difficult games or races. I want to know what motivates the athletes themselves. I want to know the athletes as people, rather than as caricatures of disability meant to inspire me.
Katerina Holtzapple is contributing author. Email her at email@example.com.