RALEIGH – Special Olympics of North Carolina serves as the pre-eminent organization guiding the state in opportunities for athletes with disabilities, providing sports state-wide for a range of athletes.
The Special Olympics of North Carolina (SONC) serves more than 40,000 athletes per year, making it the ninth largest Special Olympics group in the world, according to Lauren Saulter, the Sports Director in the organization’s Wake County office. The organization serves primarily people with intellectual disabilities but has expanded in recent years to include people with some other conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder.
“Most of our athletes play more than one sport,” Saulter said. “We really encourage them to play as many as possible because it gives our athletes the opportunity for physical fitness, sometimes for the first time in their lives.”
SONC offers programs in 19 sports.
“Basketball,” Saulter said, “definitely in North Carolina, basketball is really popular.”
The offerings include swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, as well as more unexpected options like bocce ball. The goal is to provide training at least once weekly for eight weeks and then have competitions, Saulter said. Some athletes require special assistance, such as ramps for people in wheelchairs who participate in bowling, but the goal is to use traditional game rules as much as possible.
The organization has been part of the North Carolina culture for 50 years, offering “joy, courage, and empowerment” to its athletes over a half-century, according to the group’s Facebook page.
Although Special Olympics exists outside of the school system, Saulter said her educational experience led her to an interest in adapted sports to give people an opportunity to be active.
“P.E. is something that’s still there in North Carolina, but it can be minimal,” Saulter said. “
The American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, an advocacy group aimed at raising visibility and frequency for these programs, considers the use of adapted sports “a hoped for, rarely attained opportunity in the majority of schools across America.”
To that end, SONC is working to partner with school leaders. A tweet this week showing a large group meeting says “Special Olympics University Leaders (SOUL) met this week to discuss inclusion in schools across the state.”
This effort is one that Saulter said is part of a growing body of work at the organization to address “the whole person.”
In fact, this SONC effort is part of a broader movement to make sports workable for people with various intellectual, behavioral, and physical disabilities. Groups like TOPSoccer, a nationwide program to allow these children to compete in low-stress soccer environments, and The Miracle League, a similar program for baseball, are cropping up nationwide.
I'm a recovering journalist now living a Renaissance life working as a writer & political strategist. I also am the mom to 2 children, one of whom has autonomic dysfunction & Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, I write about politics and healthcare in North Carolina.