An exploration of the impact of the images the Special Olympics portray of people with intellectual disabilities on public attitudes towards this minority group

  • Ray Lynch

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The relationship between people with intellectual disabilities (PWID) and how they experience social inclusion is a somewhat complex phenomenon. Historically, PWID have been systematically excluded from society. Despite an unprecedented level of enactment of equality and rights based legislation over the last 25 years, a shift from the medical model of disability to the
social model and the implementation of multiple disability sports inclusion initiatives, research has found that many PWID routinely experience social exclusion in Ireland. However, in stark contrast to this one disability specific sporting organisation, the Special Olympics (SO),make claim that they are transforming communities that are respectful and inclusive of PWID. It is therefore imperative that such assertions are further investigated, as
some researchers have claimed that the images the SO use to portray PWID has only served to perpetuate their isolation and segregation from society
(Storey 2009). The overall aim of this study was threefold. In the first instance it was to explore the impact of the images used by the SO to portray PWID has had on public attitudes towards this minority group. The second aim was to analyse public attitudes towards the Special Olympics and the position of its participants within local communities. The final aim of the study was to assess how a decade of legislative and social change in society’s responses to disability has impacted on participants in this study. Focus groups were facilitated across the four provinces of Ireland with two specific age groups in order to explore public attitudes across two distinct generations. The findings from the focus groups were discussed with five carefully chosen topic experts so as to provide a deeper and richer insight into the themes arising from this research study. The findings revealed that while the SO are of significant importance to the everyday lives of PWID and PWID are more ‘visible’ in society, they fall considerably short in ensuring that this minority group are included in any ‘meaningful’ way in their communities. At the time of this study it was also observed that a decade of legislative and social change in society’s responses to disability has had some positive but limited impact on focus group participants. Finally, of the 107 people who took part in the focus groups, only one claimed to have a friend with an intellectual disability. Thus, the overall results of this study indicate that while PWID are experiencing regular ‘integration’ into their communities’ ‘meaningful’ inclusion continues to elude them.
Date of AwardMar 2018
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDavid Hassan (Supervisor) & Eric Wallace (Supervisor)


  • Sport
  • Inclusion
  • Exclusion
  • Rights
  • Continuum
  • Social Model
  • Medical Model
  • Interdependency
  • Marginalisation
  • Stereotypes

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