Timothy Shriver is the CEO of the Special Olympics; he gave the Opening Address at the October 27th Autism and Advocacy Conference. Shriver began by describing the Special Olympics as not so much about “disability” as about “diffability,” a word (as far as I know) of his own coining. “Diffability,” he suggested, emphasizes how Special Olympians are differently abled in athletic competition rather than unable to compete.
(For the record, the “dif” in “diffability” and the “dis” in “disability” are both from the Latin prefix dis, which means “apart or asunder” from, with the sense of negating or taking away.)
An example of diffability was the Irish Special Olympian with a number of motor disabilities whose event involved picking up a ball and rolling it. Shriver mentioned this athlete as he spoke towards the latter part of his speech about the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games; he told of the crowd who watched in anticipatory silence as the athlete did his best, and of the thunderous sound of the applause (not the ASL type) after he had completed his event.
Shriver’s address moved back and forth between referring to individuals with disabilities and those who, being “able-bodied”—inspired by such words as “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (spoken by Mahatma Gandhi)—seek to help them. “I got back more than I gave” is a typical sentiment that a non-disabled volunteer to the disabled often has—-and Shriver’s speech hinted at some of the flaws in this kind of thinking, in which it is always the non-disabled” person who provides the help and aide that the disabled person receives.
The relationship ought rather to be a two-way street, as Shriver suggested by an anecdote about his two sons. He had asked them what they thought they got out of spending time with disabled peers. One answered by noting that, when they go to Disneyworld, it is really fun and then it is over and (I hope it is all right if I quote Shriver’s son’s words as relayed in his speech), “it sucks.” Whereas, playing basketball with two kids named Matt and DJ is “the kind of fun that lasts.”
The kind of fun that lasts. Certainly that is the sum-total effect of all that we do with Charlie, with whom not only every day but every experience is a new and original, a different, adventure. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is a phrase for any of us, all of us, at whatever degree of disability we might have.
And the reason the fun never stops is because of the difference—the diffability—that Charlie and kids like him makes.