Redefining Special Needs

On October 17, 2010, over 150 athletes in 12 teams from around Massachusetts descended upon the Harvard playing fields for a flag football tournament organized jointly by Special Olympics Massachusetts and students from HKS and HBS.

In addition, over 100 volunteers from HBS and HKS helped to referee the games, set up the fields, and encouraged each of the teams from the sidelines along with the athletes’ parents, friends, and other supporters. The fact that these young athletes had various physical and mental handicaps was overshadowed by the spirit of the day-an environment in which individuals were not patronized for their disabilities, but instead were challenged to run faster, throw farther, and make the same high-pressure catches of any other competitor.

This environment, according to Jay O’Brien, Assistant Vice President of Corporate Development of Special Olympics Massachusetts, is what the Special Olympics is trying to achieve. He described, “We’re trying to bring people with special needs out of their homes and institutions and off their couches and into the light to change people’s perceptions.” From many accounts, this small event succeeded in its goal for both the athletes and volunteers, and provided for an entertaining, educational, and at times emotional morning.

Motivating the Event
Planning for the flag football tournament began in the Spring, facilitated by Jennifer Choi (NB, HKS) along with the Special Needs Caucus, an HKS club which she co-founded last year, as well as the Student Public Service Collaborative (SPSC) and Special Olympics Massachusetts. Choi was motivated to enter HKS and HBS, and to start the Special Needs Caucus in part because her younger brother Simon has Prader-Willi Syndrom, a genetic condition whose symptoms include obsessive compulsive hunger and mental retardation. As Choi described in a presentation to Section B earlier this Fall, “Imagine how it feels to not eat for a day. Now imagine how it feels to not eat for two days. That is how my brother feels every moment of his life.” Though doctors had declared that he would not be able to learn even basic skill, through dedicated efforts by Choi and her family, Choi’s brother can now read and write. It was this experience that showed Choi that, given the right care, individuals with special needs were much more capable than was perceived.

Now, Choi has loftier goals to help other individuals with special needs just as she and her mother helped her brother. Her long-term objective is to affect public policy as it relates to providing for individuals with special needs. By organizing events which expose students of HBS and HKS to individuals with special needs, Choi hopes that, if presented with a situation involving special needs in the future, these students will reflect on these specific past experiences when making their decision and to not be biased by what society has previously prescribed for individuals with disabilities. Choi said, “If I can get everyone to just take an extra minute to consider special needs issues, then it will be worth it.”

Experiences at the Event
The flag football tournament held at Harvard provided the athletes a great venue to demonstrate the football skills which they had developed after weeks of training. From observing the athletes, it was difficult to imagine that, according to Robert Johnson, CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts, “Society did not believe that individuals with special needs could understand the rules of sports, the idea of teamwork, or the concept of fair play.” As described by Ben Story (NB), “The event was real-there were real rules, real competition.which is important because it shows both these athletes and observers that these individuals are as capable as anyone else.”

The tournament provided a unique and personal experience for each student volunteer as they interacted with a particular team. Students were involved in every aspect of the day’s events, from cheering on teams, helping out in training sessions prior to the competition, cheering from the sidelines, or simply talking and getting to know to special needs individuals and their families. Though each volunteer interacted with different individuals, certain commonalities remained-each student came away with a sense of hope and joy for participating in the events. As described by Story, “When I woke up in the morning, I was exhausted. After being here with these athletes, I am full of energy. This was the best way to spend a Sunday morning, and it was nothing like what I expected.”

What Next?
For Choi, the Special Needs Caucus, the SPSC, and Special Olympics Massachusetts, this event is just one small step in an ongoing movement to change perceptions on how society sees individuals with special needs, and how individuals with special needs see themselves. An encouraging statistic for Jay O’Brien of Special Olympics Massachusetts is that the life expectancy of individuals with Down’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder which limits cognitive ability and physical growth, has increased from 26 to 60 within the last 50 years. According to Obrien, the Special Olympics and related organizations have played a role in this improvement “by helping individuals with special needs live longer, healthier, happier lives through the power of sport.”

However, as described by Robert Johnson, CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts, much work is left to do. The goal of the Special Olympics organization worldwide is to grow from serving 3.5 million individuals to serving 5 million individuals. Both volunteer time and financial donations are always appreciated. The Special Olympics Summer Games will be held in June at Harvard, and many events are held throughout the state each weekend.

If you would like get involved in programs involving individuals with special needs, contact Jennifer Choi ( or visit //

Jehan deFonseka is the Section B Harbus Representative.