Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Who’s Intellectually Disabled?

As my husband and I began watching the 2023 film CHAMPIONS on Amazon Prime, I thought to myself that I’d seen the story before—more than once. A loser team meets a loser coach and la la la, champions are made! However, my husband had tolerated several British mysteries to please me, so I felt I owed him a sports theme even if it was a bit threadbare. After all, we were skipping pre-season football.

The fact that the team members weren’t from the ghetto or simply “unproductive” teams but suffered intellectual disabilities was supposed to set them apart. Having taught college students who had been labeled intellectually disabled (in fact, they were “let go” from the college for what the administrators felt was “inability to benefit”), I wasn’t surprised that the actors, like the characters they were playing, were charming. When the intellectually disabled look or act a little differently from “normal” young people, the society doesn’t want to be near them. They repulse “desirable” students. The young people I taught worked hard against intellectual obstacles that shouldn’t have prevented them from living full, independent lives. They were simply slower and focused on more limited areas of achievement. Regardless, they were targeted for removal using standardized testing. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, the story of CHAMPIONS (based on a real team) reminded me of tales from Special Olympics of intellectually disadvantaged adults caring for one another more than for temporary glory. Why is that unusual? How long does the thrill of a trophy last beside the warmth of a friendship or even kindness from a stranger? What we call education grooms our young people to be like their parents—for good or ill, to obey without complaint, to accept goals chosen by adults whether those goals work for them or not. Little wonder, then, that parents still hurry to enroll their children in sports that have a recently publicized history of producing intellectually and/or physically debilitated adults. Heat strokes, heart attacks, paralyses, and traumatic brain injuries become unfortunate collateral damage—small in comparison to the glory of having a champion in the family. Just think of the pay a champion might earn!

Physical fitness becomes a shadow in the rearview mirror for professional athletes. The goal isn’t the ultimate benefit of the individual. Individuals are sacrificed for team success which enriches the success of the organization. For adults who are capable of comprehending the full impact of the risks involved, that’s a choice. For young people who are told their value lies entirely in how much they can contribute to the team, it’s indoctrination. How many adults have you met who still nurse old sports wounds one parent or the other thought were worthwhile? We tell our children to get out there and have a good time…but the subtext is, as long as you win. Perhaps being intellectually disabled allows participants to prioritize the good of the individuals.

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