Sport is the equalizer at the Special Olympics World Games By Celestine Fraser

The Special Olympics World Games are the world’s largest inclusive sporting event. This year’s event will take place this June in Berlin, Germany: 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities will travel to the city to compete in 26 Olympic-type sports – from kayaking to basketball. As well as being the first Games to be hosted in Germany, the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 will be the first to officially recognise the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower. Staff and volunteers at the Games have been trained to assist any athletes, delegates and visitors who choose to wear the Sunflower. 

Often, intellectual disabilities are non-visible, so many of the Special Olympics community will be familiar with the same prejudice and misconceptions as wearers of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower. Like the Sunflower, the Special Olympics aims to empower people with disabilities to thrive and participate fully in life.

Athletes with disabilities are using the Sunflower

Across the world, athletes with non-visible disabilities are using the Sunflower lanyard to flag their disability during competition or practice. Shreen is an athlete who competes in wheelchair rugby and wheelchair rugby league. She wears the Sunflower and calls it “an absolutely amazing scheme,” adding that “It helps to make us all more visible.” She wears the Sunflower wristband on the pitch and a lanyard in everyday life – especially on public transport – to flag to those around her that though it may look like “there’s nothing wrong,” in reality she experiences a number of non-visible disabilities, including chronic fatigue, chronic pain, asthma and osteoarthritis. She wears a knee brace on her right leg, but people don’t always notice, and in any case most of her disabilities are invisible. This can make public transport a challenge: “In the public people tend to be quite ignorant. People can see that I’m struggling to stand and I’m leaning on things, but they won’t offer a seat.”

Wearing the Sunflower enables Shreen to access better support or understanding. Within contexts like healthcare, she finds that “people tend to recognise the Sunflower,” but when people aren’t yet familiar with it, she uses the opportunity to explain what it is and to challenge common misconceptions about disability:

“We see people walking and we feel like nothing’s wrong with them. But we shouldn’t think like that because these people might have arthritis, or Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, or anything really. Some people have better days. Some people don’t use aids. We just have to see the bigger picture.”