Special Olympians Gather In Missoula For Summer Games

May 19, 2017

Approximately 20,000 Montanans have developmental disabilities.

"Everyday they face discrimination," says Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, who is the executive director for Disability Rights Montana based in Helena.

"They face it when they try to access public buildings, when they’re trying to get support in jobs, they face it everyday."

Franks-Ongoy said discrimination issues in Montana have improved since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, however, she said more work is always needed. 

"I think with the passage of the ADA and more and more people becoming aware of what the law requires, I think there has been improvement, that being said, there’s a lot, lot more that has to be done," Franks-Ongoy says.

Every summer, Special Olympics Montana offers people with developmental disabilities a chance to compete in a range of athletic events, and to celebrate who they are and what they can accomplish.

Last week, Missoula hosted the Special Olympics for the third and final year in a three year rotation that travels the state.

Events began with an opening barbeque at Osprey stadium where athletes and volunteers gathered together to socialize and share their excitement for the games ahead.

“I’m Patrick Gary I’m from Lewistown, Montana. I do the 5k road race, the 10k road race, the cycling and the 100 meter dash and the 200 meter dash. It makes me feel I’m accepted and it helps me to go on living a healthy life. I have vision loss, I have autism, which kind of limits me to do a few things. But the way I see it, how do you know I can’t do something unless I try?"

"I’m Hillary Benjamin and I’m from Missoula and I’m competing in Bocci tomorrow. Thursday I’m doing swimming, and Friday I’m doing track and field. I’ve been doing Special Olympics over 30 years, since I was eight."

"I’m Colton Stensgard Mall, I’m competing in tomorrow’s shotput, swimming on Thursday, Friday running the 100 meter dash. Hillary and I are going to run in the torch with the opening ceremonies."

For many, the games were second to the chance to meet new friends and reunite with others.

"I'm Frank Acsep, and I came from Hamilton."

Acsep told me what he was looking forward to the most during the week.

"To tell you the truth, dancing. Dancing and socializing with my peers," Acsep says.

Down on the baseball diamond, olympians were dancing and kicking soccer balls and throwing frisbees.

Some athletes, like Gary Fuller from Missoula, said they appreciated how the games emphasized strengths over perceived weaknesses.   

"To me it’s not good to show the disability and not the ability. You know, to show the ability to do stuff like ride bikes, drive a car, go talk to people, is what I do," Fuller says.

The following evening at the Adams Center, athletes were again coming together for the opening ceremonies. Coaches and parents were among the crowd.

Lindsey Campbell's daughter was competing in the games.

"She’s been excited for the past month for this upcoming event," Campbell says. "She feels comfortable socializing with kids here, I think they get her and understand her, and they’re all kind of on the same path."

Crystal Meyer is a coach from Ronan. This is her team’s first year to participate in the games.

"I think it’s good for people to come out and see that even though everybody might be a little different, everybody has a place and everybody has something unique to offer to the community," says Meyer.

I asked two people working for Special Olympics Montana if they thought athletes, outside of the games, faced discrimination in the state.

"I don’t think discrimination is by choice. I think that anytime you encounter someone who is a little different, if you yourself are not ready to deal with that situation you shun that individual or situation, and I think unfortunately that’s what happens with so many of our athletes," Wendy Rispens says.

"I think people with developmental disabilities always have challenges no matter where they're at. I don’t think it’s necessarily discrimination of people hating them for who they are, I think it’s more of people not knowing how to approach people with intellectual disabilities or know their skills and that they can be use and very useful in our society and a great part of it," says Mandy Patriarche.

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy of Disability Rights Montana looks at Special Olympics not so much as a solution, but a start.

"Well, I think Special Olympics is a fine idea," Franks-Ongoy says. "I would love to see the day that we have integrated Olympics instead of just Special Olympics. We see people with disabilities every single day now in our communities and I think it’s just really important to greet them where they’re at and treat them like you would anybody else."

For now, these events offer those with developmental disabilities a chance to bring attention to their abilities.  

By 2020, Special Olympics Montana plans to serve at least 3,000 athletes annually.