The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for all children and adults with developmental disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community. Special Olympics emphasizes the abilities of people, not their disabilities. The focus is on their achievements beyond expectations, not on limitations.
In 1968, the First International Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago. 1,000 athletes from the United States, Canada and France competed. Today, more than 2.2 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities participate in Special Olympics programs in 20,000 communities around the country, representing 97% of the counties in the United States and more than 150 countries.
In the context of Special Olympics, the term “intellectual disabilities” is a synonym for mental retardation. Therefore, Special Olympics uses the definition of intellectual disabilities/mental retardation provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ specialized agency for health. According to the WHO, intellectual disability is a condition of arrested or incomplete development of the mind characterized by impairment of skills and overall intelligence in areas such as cognition, language, and motor and social abilities. Intellectual disability can occur with or without any other physical or mental disorders. Although reduced level of intellectual functioning is the characteristic feature of this disorder, the diagnosis is made only if it is associated with a diminished ability to adapt to the daily demands of the normal social environment.
Illinois is divided into 17 areas which operate year-round Special Olympics programs. Each area is administered by an Area Director and an area management team which consists of at least eight committee chairs. The committees implement the majority of functions of an area program which include: training, games, volunteer management, fundraising, families, outreach, finance and public education.
The branch in Illinois which Northwestern co-organizes is Area Five. It is Northwestern’s largest student run event with over 100 student coaches, and more still working to spread awareness to the university and community.