A Special Olympics lesson about togetherness

How disabled athletes teach us that the isolation we face today can bring forth a new togetherness for tomorrow

Ayalon Ozri (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayalon Ozri
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The people of the State of Israel will awaken this morning to yet another day of restrictions on mobility and an uncertainty for the future that it shares with fellow nations around the world. 
With a paralyzed global economy, and a global health community under unprecedented strain, few if any could have predicted the deep and far reaching impact that COVID-19 would have- both locally and globally. As citizens and officials make their predictions, one can almost hear faintly in the distance the elders whispering: Mann Tracht. Un Gott Lacht – the old Yiddish adage: Man plans, and God laughs.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced the world to reimagine so many things that we took for granted- but two months ago. It has brought to the forefront a new reality, indeed a frightening one that obligates the nation to reimagine a new paradigm. Enter the specter of forced isolation and the need for social distancing. Teleworking has become the new professional normal- substituting Board rooms with Zoom rooms. 
Screens have replaced handshakes. Meeting up with friends, once an assumed standard, is now an opportunity we hope to win again. This process of re-imagination brings with is a strong sense of anxiety and fear- for such is the nature of confronting the unknown. But under the surface of this anxiety and fear rests a definitive opportunity in history. This present social and economic paralysis has brought with it a renewed appreciation for what has always been right in front of us. The nightly celebrations of health professionals across the world is a reminder that the medical community, as well as countless professionals in the supply-chain, deserve daily praise and recognition of their value, with or without a pandemic. Confinement has forced us to take full stock of our families, our habits, our way of thinking.
The post COVID-19 world will bring with it a strong urge to redefine what we thought we knew so well. And while this process of redefinition can be an uncomfortable one, there is a population across the State of Israel already offering a blueprint. This demographic does not boast of a strong voting bloc, nor does it represent dominant purchasing power. It is not a population that has any large influence over political maneuvering, or industrial output. Yet the simple and powerful truth they offer brings with it a powerful direction.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities- perhaps the nation’s most isolated and marginalized demographic- invite the nation to reimagine and redefine long-held beliefs and stereotypes at a time when we need it most. Could there be any better time than now to reimagine the future? Could this be an historic moment not only for those in the center, but those on the margins?
Special Olympics Israel is at the forefront of this redefinition.
As the premier national organization empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities through sports and health programming, the athletes of Special Olympics Israel have taken to social media to share their methods for staying active at home as well as offering techniques to help keep a positive frame of mind during isolation. Indeed, if there is any population group that understands the fortitude required in the face of social isolation it is those with intellectual disabilities. And we, the so-called mainstream, would do well to take this opportunity of shared circumstances to learn from them.
The athletes of Special Olympics Israel have activated a social media campaign built upon a single, yet striking question:
“What does being unified mean to you?”
They are asking the nation to share what unity, and togetherness, means to us all. They are encouraging the nation to consider their own personal redefinition, starting with what it is that connects us. They reference the inclusive, unified nature of Special Olympics programming- one that brings individuals with and without intellectual disabilities together on the field of sports- to inspire us to reimagine what the world could be after we awaken from this COVID-19 nightmare.
“It was an immediate reaction from our athletes”, said Sharon Levy-Balanga, chief executive officer of Special Olympics Israel. “From the very beginning of the confinement period, athletes from throughout the country began to share their thoughts on social media, namely about how important being Unified really is- to them and to us.” With thousands of participating athletes across the country, Special Olympics Israel looks forward to a post COVID-19 nation that celebrates individuals of all abilities – on and off the field of play. “Our athletes have unique skills, and a powerful ability to teach us lessons so critical to the world today,” Levy-Balanga continued. “Individuals with intellectual disabilities are challenging the nation to be Unified, not only in its response to COVID-19, but in response all of the recovery issues that will confront us. We must face them together, and there is no better group to teach us the urgency of this than the athletes of Special Olympics.”
Individuals with intellectual disabilities are a fitting group to challenge the nation to unite against a global health threat. They represent a community of people that has some of the world’s lowest health outcomes of any population subset. Indeed, those with intellectual disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and at-risk groups to COVID-19 and often lack fair and equal access to health care.
It is a group that has some of the lowest access to education or employment rates. This marginalization and stigmatization extends to the wider family, and to society , and its effects are far-reaching. Yet, despite this, Special Olympics Israel athletes are keen to seize the opportunity to welcome a brighter day.
“The State of Israel is facing a number of divisions,” said Dr. Shai Piron, chairman of the board of directors of Special Olympics Israel. “There can be no more powerful messenger than those with intellectual disabilities at a time when we must rediscover our shared humanity. They are the teachers of today.”
To witness the muscle of the unified message, one need not look further than the town of Tira, where schools of students of all abilities come together not only to train and compete, but to learn and play and connect as one. Teachers collaborate on shared classroom lessons. Parents of students, once separated by their child’s ability, now become one group to advocate for the best education for all children. Tira is an example of what is taking place throughout the country- school by school, pitch by pitch, parent by parent.
Special Olympics Israel is also advancing its work around inclusive health. Through targeted, community-based partnerships, the national organization is developing one of the most innovative models of health care for marginalized groups – engaging a national cadre of health professionals and leading institutions to help ensure that all individuals with intellectual disabilities can access the quality health care they need, and deserve.
If all politics is local, so too are the powerful social innovations being made possible by a group long overlooked on the national stage. “When we look across the spectrum – business, politics, academia, media – our athletes stand to offer so many significant contributions to the strengthening of the nation. We have a moment in time, right now, when these contributions can be part of the national dialogue, and we must take full advantage of this, not just for our athletes, but for all of us,” continued Piron. “The athletes are not asking us what we are afraid of, or what is bothering us; they are asking us to go deep within and define what unity means to us. It is a question that requires reflection, and candor. It is an extraordinary question for an extraordinary time.”
Theodore Herzl once said to a listening crowd in Bessel, Switzerland in 1887: “We have an important task before us.” Some 133 years later, the State of Israel, together with the global community, has a monumental challenge ahead of it- to emerge from COVID-19 stronger, more resilient, and better prepared for health risks that know no boundaries or economies. The important task before nations now is not only to resurrect a crippled economy and workforce, but also to ensure that those once forgotten, and those forever relegated to the sidelines, are now given a position on the field of nation building in order that the togetherness that we are relying to get us through today can be woven into the fabric of tomorrow. In order to welcome a post COVID-19 world, one must first reimagine themselves. One must be creative in redefining the core tenants of this new society. Most of all, one must be brave enough to consider and celebrate the fact that long-standing social assumptions will need to be rewritten.
The State of Israel, like countless nations around the world, is at a crossroads in history. In ways both big and small, this is a definitive ‘before and after’ moment. When the nation returns to the street, to the office, to the classroom and to the factory, and families begin to grasp the new reality, it will take a truly collective effort- from everyone- to lift up what has been fully grounded for now months.
A process of redefinition is well underway in kitchens, pantries, residencies, break rooms, hospitals and cabinet meetings. People from all walks of life are reimagining their lives, their relationships, their futures. This process can bring with it a nation renewed. This process of redefinition has the potential to forever change and strengthen the nation’s fabric, rooting it in a shared connectedness in a way previously unseen. Every demographic will bring its unique characteristics to this foundational dialogue. One population in particular is asking the question that offers everyone a glimpse of where the starting line is in this new race for a reimagined world, the place where all of us can begin to recreate and redefine together, to ensure a fully inclusive future. It will require, in ways, a new nation- a unified nation.
It is therefore fitting that the athletes of Special Olympics Israel, in their clairvoyance, ask the simple yet profound question: What does unified mean to you? 

Sharon Levy-Blanga is National Director of Special Olympics Israel (Sharon@specialolympicsisrael.org) and David S. Evangelista is Regional President & Managing Director, Europe Eurasia (DEvangelista@specialolympics.org)