Fighting for inclusivity in sports

(BEAVERTON) — About two years ago, Owen Gifford was invited to attend an after school practice for his school’s Special Olympics Unified Sports team.

The Westview High School senior has been passionate about volunteering with the organization ever since.

“Seeing how hard the athletes work in their day-to-day lives and on the field, and seeing how much joy that one or two practices a week and a game every weekend can bring to their lives — it’s something that isn’t strenuous on me at all and something that I enjoy,” Gifford, 18, said. “It’s something I hope to continue doing for the rest of my life.”

United Sports at Westview High School is an inclusive sports program through Special Olympics Oregon. Teams comprise individuals with and without intellectual disabilities, and practices run year-round. The teams play soccer, golf, basketball, and other sports depending on the season.

Gifford helps run the program, coaches the team at his school, and works with Special Olympics Oregon to get other youth involved in the organization. Gifford also interned with the organization last summer and said that getting to know the players has significantly impacted him.

“Leadership can take form in so many different ways,” he said. “It sometimes can seem hard to go through everyday life, but trying to find your meaning is so important, and I think I have found a meaning, a little bit, through working with special education students.”

One of his favorite memories from his team experience was attending another player’s birthday party last year.

“Riley is one of our athletes who’s been there for a while. He’s also a senior. He’s graduating with me,” Gifford said. “I really appreciate Riley. He’s one of my favorite athletes.”

They played kickball at the party, and Gifford said it meant a lot to him to be invited. He picked up a rock there that he keeps in his car.

“It inspires me to start the day off strong because I know he’s so happy with his life,” Gifford said. “(I know) how hard it is sometimes. He can’t really talk, and he has a lot of health problems. But he still shows up to school every day, and he’s always smiling when he sees me.”

He also really enjoys the team’s championship games. For some players, it’s their first time at an event like that, and Gifford gets to experience it right along with them.

“I’ve had the privilege of being able to do a lot of high school sports and stuff like that, so I know the apprehension and the trepidation that comes with these big games,” he said. “It’s really great to see them experience something like that.”

After Gifford graduates, he plans to pursue a degree in economics and then law school, with the goal of one day becoming a politician who can help make the changes he wants to see in the world.

“Especially after seeing the things within the Special Olympics, and how I can make changes and solve problems, but most of the time, they’ll be temporary because there are some fundamental institutional problems that are prevalent within so many aspects of our daily life that continue to put down different groups,” he said.

He said these institutional problems are almost embedded in our culture, and by pursuing a career in politics, he can help fight for inclusivity.

“I think the way I want to try to tackle that problem is by going into the legislature, trying to pass laws advocating for these groups that might not have a voice,” he said.

It’ll take more than a few quick fixes, but Gifford is hopeful that through awareness and smart policy, future generations will be more inclusive.

“Trying to combat this culture around, and a narrative around, special education students as less than or that these students are stupider or dumber is very important to creating an inclusive environment in our school,” he said. “All the students and all the athletes are the same as any other students, and they should be treated with the same amount of respect and the same amount of joy. They deserve everything that any other student has access to.”


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