a photo of special olympics chairman Timothy Shriver smiling
"This is the time for compassion for both ourselves and others." Photo courtesy: Timothy Shriver


Special Olympics’ Tim Shriver on How COVID-19 Is Impacting People With Special Needs

'All of us have looked the other way when it comes to providing support, integration and justice for this population.'

Amidst all the discussions and news coverage around COVID-19, one crucial aspect that’s not been focused very much on has been the impact the pandemic is having on people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

We spoke to Dr. Timothy Shriver, a prominent voice and champion for inclusion, about the pandemic, the challenges parents and teachers are facing and the future of education. He’s the long-time Chairman of the Special Olympics and has driven the largest expansion of the organization, growing the movement from one million athletes to over six million in 193 countries around the world. Shriver is also the co-founder of Unite, a civic and social issues initiative, best-selling author, the founding force of the social and emotional learning (SEL) movement and a film producer.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity

Since COVID-19 has begun, what are the key challenges you’ve heard about from the special needs community about the impact that the pandemic has had on them?

There are two hard-edged stories coming out of this. Many of our athletes are telling me that “isolation’s nothing new to me. The whole world is talking about it, but I’ve had it all my life,” and it’s painful to hear. It reminds us how little we know about each other’s lives, how many times we miss the hard reality that our brothers and sisters are living with every day. So in some ways, the rest of the world has gotten a little bit of a taste of what it feels like to be locked away. And I hope the second half of this is that we see the other hard-edged reality, which is when you’re locked away, things are very hard. You don’t get as good healthcare or you don’t feel as good about yourself. You don’t build friendships. You’re not healthy. 

Look at all of the efforts people are putting in: “I’m isolated, I have to work out, I have to find a way to see the doctor, I have to get a haircut or meet my friends, or I can’t go out to dinner.” That’s life for the vast majority of people with intellectual disabilities. So we have to end it not just for us during COVID, but we have to end it after COVID because it results in profound inequalities, bad health, and really a broken culture and a broken heart, neither of which are acceptable. The injustice is just unacceptable. 

Our movement is working very hard to find the voices who can help us change, for instance, the inequalities in the healthcare system, improve access to education and inclusive educational activities because these are ways to actually promote justice and end discrimination. In the Special Olympics, it looks like we’re just playing football or basketball or bachi, but we’re actually trying to end injustice. We’re trying to heal these divisions. It’s been a very difficult time, but I hope it’s been a time of deep learning. 

COVID-19 has further shed light on the inequality that exists in our societies — whether it’s access to healthcare or lack of hygienic facilities for people with disabilities. You’ve talked about it in some of your work, could you tell us more?

What people don’t realize is that people with intellectual disabilities have been the victim of another ism. We know about racism and sexism. We know about the many of the ways in which our countries, our cultures, our histories are filled with division. We know about religious animosity. We know about gender-based and sexuality-based challenges to healing and understanding. Most people don’t realize that another group suffers greatly with this mindset that splits and separates. It’s the human mindset, I guess, but we also have a human mindset that links and loves. Our movement is about trying to strengthen the mindset that links and loves and reduce the mindset that separates and stigmatizes. People with intellectual disabilities, from the moment of birth, from the moment of diagnosis, end up on a track that’s not healthy and not fair. 

People with intellectual disabilities, from the moment of birth, from the moment of diagnosis, end up on a track that’s not healthy and not fair. 

Their moms, if they’re not poor already, very frequently become poor, and often lose their jobs. They don’t get good healthcare. In almost every country in the world, from the richest to the poorest, the care for the child with an intellectual disability is not as good as that of the normatively developing child. Most estimates are that 90% of children with intellectual disabilities never go to school. It’s so pervasive that people don’t even know it. I don’t say all this to accuse, but to awaken. I always feel stronger and hopeful when a bias is revealed to me, and I go “Oh my gosh! I was harbouring that, I didn’t even see it and now I can change.” So, the Special Olympics movement is centered, not on blaming and shaming, as much as on revealing and changing.

A lot of the issues you have mentioned are systemic. What are some tangible steps governments can take in light of COVID-19 to ensure the needs of people with disabilities are met? 

  • The healthcare training systems need to be changed wherein the people who are trained to become healthcare professionals, learn about intellectual disability, from people in frontline work and EMT, to surgeons and specialists, they all need training. Most places don’t either require it, and many don’t even offer it. Governments can change the regulatory and the licensing requirements that would require that kind of change. 
  • Governments need to support women and children with intellectual disabilities, with dedicated access to early childhood support that children need to optimize their development — sometimes that’s early childhood development, but sometimes it’s just a special program to make sure the child gets vaccinated like every other child.
  •  We need to promote inclusive education. So many of the problems in our countries and in our cultures and the systems center on the absence of good education systems for people. We need to learn how to include children with intellectual disabilities in culturally competent and culturally relevant ways. 
  • The body is a central feature of growth and development. It’s critical for the brain, but in its own right, we need to feel confident, comfortable, connected in our bodies. That’s what sports does. Sports opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities ought to begin at the moment of birth. Motor and fine activities, play activities for moms and their children must be encouraged. 
a collage of special olympics athletes getting medically tested

Special Olympics athletes receiving medical support at the Special Olympics World Games held in Abu Dhabi last year.

At the Special Olympics last year, there were medical camps being conducted. For a lot of children from developing countries, it was their first time accessing medical facilities and seeing a doctor. Apart from the Special Olympics, what can smaller organizations and the community do to better support people with special needs?

People came to a global event and traveled halfway around the world, and were competing in great sporting activities, and some had never seen a dentist in their whole life or an eye doctor, or had shoes that fit them, or seen a physical therapist.

All of us have looked the other way when it comes to providing support, integration and justice for this population. 

If you work for a company, check with the HR and just ask, “Do we hire people with intellectual disabilities? If not, why not? And can we start?” If you work in the education system, ask the leadership, “What’s our strategy for not educating children with special needs? If we don’t have one, let’s develop one. How do we change?” You may feel like you play a small role. But know that your voice is important. 

If you’re 12-years-old, you know who is the only person who can make a 12-year-old with intellectual disabilities feel included? It’s you. Ask your mother or your father if there is a friend who could be coming to your school who can be included. Is there someone we could ask to play this afternoon in our soccer game, in our basketball court, in our backyard? Just that one invitation could change a life and the life that you change may be yours, not just of the child with an intellectual disability.

I want to touch upon your background as an educator. With the pandemic, we’ve moved to distance learning. In our reporting, we’ve found that parents have said their child with intellectual disabilities has a hard time adjusting to online learning or doesn’t get the individualized attention they require from their learning support assistant. What long-term impact do you think this will have on students with physical and intellectual disabilities, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds?   

It will be a painful long-term impact. The bottom 20 or 30% of humanity doesn’t have access to a smartphone or a tablet. If you don’t have access to high-quality internet or large bandwidths or the capacity to even afford those bandwidths, distance learning doesn’t work. 

If we want to avoid post-traumatic stress syndrome, we have to now build post-traumatic strength syndrome.

If we want to avoid post-traumatic stress syndrome, we have to now build post-traumatic strength syndrome. The strengths we need are the connections, the capacity to express for those moms. They need outlets and people to talk to them as well as practical solutions. They need to be heard; they need to feel like their struggle is not theirs alone. They need to feel like when this is over, there will be people and resources that will come to them and help them catch up. There’s no shortcut to the fact that many people will fall behind as compared to their peers and they need to be told that’s not their fault.

How do you think the regular school experience will change especially as schools reopen in the near future?

I think it’s very dangerous. I’ve talked to many of my fellow educators — they all want to do the best they can to open, they want their students to come back and they want the families to get the support that comes from being able to send your child to school, they want the economy to grow. I’m very worried that anything resembling normalcy, until we have widely-available vaccines and treatments, is going to result in enormous pain and suffering. Our people are already vulnerable. I think we’ve just got to take it very slowly, be patient and do the best we can. I wish I had a great solution, but all I know is that we have to take it easy, slowly and cautiously.

You’ve talked about parental guilt, and the guilt is also felt by the teachers who want to do their best for their students. Do you have any tips or advice on how parents and teachers can better support each other and their child with disabilities? 

We all have to give each a little bit of a break. Life is not all measured by the curricula we teachers are trained to teach. I think we have to recognize that content is a little less important right now than compassion. We’ll catch up — we’re all living with enormous uncertainty and stress right now. It’s taxing, be gentle with each other. 

Do you have any message for children right now who are going through a hard time? 

I’m going to give a really silly message on purpose. Play, play as much as you can. Play all day long. Play unlocks the imagination. Play connects you to other people. Draw, paint, build and read.

Give yourself some space. It may sound trivial, but I think it’s one of the most important pieces of advice we can give to each other and to our children, and to the teachers and moms and dads — have compassion on yourselves. The most important gift we can give our children is to have our own health, our own mental wellness, our soul, spirits and heart strong. This is the time for compassion for both ourselves and others.

Also read: How the COVID-19 Lockdown Is Impacting Students With Autism and ADHD


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Special Olympics’ Tim Shriver on How COVID-19 Is Impacting People With Special Needs