The following is a guest post from Harrison Long, a Special Olympics Florida volunteer and student at Palm Harbor University High School in Florida.
This may create uneasiness while reading, but I have to be candid to share my story. We have all been around that “cool kid” who uses words like crippled, handicapped, slow, stupid or retarded to address an individual with a disability. I am embarrassed to say, when I was younger I may have been one of those kids too. I was one of those people who saw the disability before I saw the actual person. I was quick to make the assumption; these kids are inept and incapable. I had friends who would poke fun at these individuals. I wasn’t strong enough to put a stop to it or maybe I just wasn’t impassioned enough to do so. However, that all changed for me in middle school when a powerful experience helped me recognize who the “cool kids” really were.
During my eighth grade year my mother signed me up as a volunteer for a Special Olympics basketball tournament. As we drove to the event I remember staring out the passenger side window thinking, “What is this going to be like? How could these kids play basketball?” Due to my narrow adolescent mind, I was absolutely convinced I would be bored and that this was going to be a complete waste of time. However, when I walked into the gym I was pleasantly surprised. The sound of athletes’ feet pounding the slick floor with the rhythmic thumping of the dribbling basketballs echoed in the gym. There was a bustling of energy similar to what I have experienced during my own sporting events. Referees, coaches, scorekeepers, team moms and of course the ever so important athletes were all running around with their pregame rituals and warm-up routines. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is interesting but I am sure chaos will ensue shortly.” To my surprise, I was certainly proved wrong.
I was given my tasks as scorekeeper and clock-watcher; tasks I initially believed to be quite easy and uneventful. In one split second the whistle blared; jump ball thrown and the game began. Within the first thirty seconds I knew I had misjudged this whole experience. The players were athletic, poised, skilled and passionate about their game. They were keenly aware of the rules and strategy. They were indeed athletes and even better teammates. Immediately, my perspective changed. My feelings were reformed from being callous and exclusionary to being respectful and inclusionary.
From that moment on, I have faithfully embraced individuals’ differences regardless of any disability. Although I recognize these individuals have a physical or intellectual limitation, we do not have to place limits on them. Through my continuous volunteer work in Special Olympics, Challenger Baseball, Pinellas County Schools Institute for Exceptional Student Education and The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, I have not only changed my personal perspective but have helped to change others’ too. I have finally figured out who the “cool kids” are. I consider myself proud and privileged to be an integral part of their world as they are in mine.