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The future of Special Olympics: Come join the inclusion revolution

Athletes at a Special Olympics Chicago volleyball tournament at Mount Carmel High School.

Athletes at a Special Olympics Chicago volleyball tournament at Mount Carmel High School. | Sun-Times file photo

1968.

It was one of the most pivotal periods in modern history. Historians everywhere look to this seminal moment as a time of great political and civil unrest that unleashed a tidal wave of change and uprising.

From war to riots, civil rights to women’s liberation, the year was revolutionary for so many reasons that irrevocably changed the face of the world for years to come.

In the midst of those tumultuous times an event was held on July 20, 1968, in Chicago at Soldier Field.

By its very nature, this was a revolutionary moment in time, too.

The world witnessed for the first time a sports competition for people with intellectual disabilities. Many of the participants needed to leave the institutions in which they lived to travel to Chicago to compete. Locked away and condemned to exist on the margins, they were brought out of the shadows and into one of the largest stadiums in the U.S. It was their chance and their moment to show the world what they could accomplish.

Justice was sought, but not in the form of a rally or a protest — but as a sporting event with joy that sparked a social uprising and used an awards podium as a transformative stage.

It was in 1968 Special Olympics was born. A social inclusion movement that has challenged the status quo since and in doing so changed society.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics movement, we want to challenge everyone to recapture the spirit of 1968. To conjure the revolutionary essence that inspired a generation and sparked the belief of making possible a better tomorrow that initially created Special Olympics.

Today our world is more divided than ever, and the work at the heart of our inclusion revolution has never been more urgent. As we head into our next 50 years we set forth to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. We will create a world of inclusion where all differences are celebrated, not scorned.

Special Olympics Chicago athletes participate in a basketball skills challenge at DePaul University in 2015. | Special Olympics website

Today, at more than 5 million athletes strong in 170-plus countries, we will continue to reach out to the nearly 200 million people with intellectual disabilities who remain in the shadows facing neglect. We will provide the global platform for our athletes to be teachers of kindness, understanding and acceptance in order to help lead others in celebrating differences.

We will welcome all those who have ever been left out.

Those who have ever been told “you can’t,” who have been bullied, or ignored, it is time for a new game. A new world, which embraces that which unites us: regardless of ability, race, sexuality, gender, and class.

The revolution is inclusion and here is how you can join.

Sports leagues and stars, open your fields, your stadiums and your sports to Special Olympics athletes.

Play with us.

Compete with us.

We promise we’ll give you the game of your life.

Students and teachers, make your places of learning the most welcoming they can be for students of all abilities — in the words you use, in your school culture and in your curriculum and in your activities.

Businesses, include those with intellectual disabilities who have countless skills and perspectives that can bring value to your teams, your customers and your bottom line.

Medical professionals, open your practices and hospitals to those with intellectual disabilities who remain the most underserved and overlooked patients in the world.

Civic leaders and legislatures, in your countries and governments ensure everyone has a voice and support needed to flourish in civil society as full and equal human beings.

Everyone can pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. Pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.

Special Olympians. | Special Olympics website

As we remember the history of Special Olympics, the milestones of our journey and the people who stood up with determination to bring the movement to life all over the globe, it is important that we reimagine the future with a fresh focus of creating true inclusion everywhere for everyone.

This column is part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics. Special Olympics staffers and Chicago Sun-Times journalists collaborated in the production of this section.

Read more about Special Olympics:

The Special Olympics legacy: How it all began in Chicago

Special Olympics ‘5 for 50’: 5 athletes for 50 years — and a bonus

Soccer tourney, torch run and Chance the Rapper all part of Special Olympics’ big Chicago celebration

50 years, 50 videos: A visual celebration of the Special Olympics

For Daniel Smrokowski, chronicling SO athletes’ journeys is a study in empowerment

Miles, medals, an ESPY and a movie mark Loretta Claiborne’s Special Olympics journey

For one Illinois athlete, Special Olympics go beyond sports. They’re his voice.

Beating the odds: 1st Special Olympian in Chicago sports hall of fame

Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope Monument set for Soldier Field site

New book spotlights Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics