Hello. My name is Matthew Williams, and I am a champion. I have won medals in three different sports and national games in Canada, competed at the international level in basketball and was proud to represent Canada on the world stage.
I train five days a week for basketball and speed skating, work with top quality coaches and mental performance consultants to be at my best in my sport. By the way, all that is through Special Olympics. Does that change the way you think of me and my accomplishments?
The world does not see all people like me as champions. Not long ago, people like me were shunned and hidden away. There has been lots of change since Special Olympics began in 1968, but in too many cases, people with intellectual disabilities are invisible to the wider population. People use the r-word in front of me, and they think it doesn't matter. That's the word "retard" or "retarded" used in a derogatory manner. They're not thinking about how much it hurts me and my friends.
I don't want you to think I'm here because I'm a charity case. I am here because there is still a big problem with the way many people see individuals with intellectual disabilities, or, too often, how they don't see them at all.
Did you know the World Games happened this year? I was one of over 6,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 165 countries who competed in LA. There was over 62,000 spectators watching opening ceremonies, and there was live coverage on TSN and ESPN. Did you even know that happened?
What do you think of when you see someone like me? I am here today to challenge you to look at us as equals.
Special Olympics transforms the self-identity of athletes with intellectual disabilities and the perceptions of everyone watching. For those of you who aren't familiar, Special Olympics is for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is separate from the Paralympics and Olympics. We offer high-quality, year round sports programs for people with intellectual disabilities that changes lives and perceptions. This movement has changed my life and those of so many others. And it has changed the way the world sees people with intellectual disabilities.
I was born with epilepsy and an intellectual disability. Growing up, I played hockey until I was 12 years old. The older I got, the more I felt it was harder to keep up with everyone else, and I was angry and frustrated. For a while, I did not play any sports, didn't have many friends and felt left out and sad.
There was a time when people with intellectual disabilities were hidden away from society. No one thought they could participate in sports, let alone be a valued member of society. In the 1960s, Dr. Frank Hayden, a scientist at the University of Toronto, was studying the effects of regular exercise on the fitness levels of children with intellectual disabilities. Using rigorous scientific research, Dr. Hayden and other researchers came to the conclusion that it was simply the lack of opportunity to participate that caused their fitness levels to suffer.
Lots of people doubted that people with intellectual disabilities could benefit from fitness programs and sports competition opportunities. But pioneers like Dr. Hayden and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, persevered, and Special Olympics athletes have proved them right four and a half million times over.
Before I joined Special Olympics, I was nervous because I was young, shy, not confident and didn't have many friends. When I got there, though, everyone was very encouraging, supportive, and let me be myself without being judged. Now, I am a basketball player and speed skater who has competed at provincial, national games, and this year made it all the way to the World Summer Games in LA, where I was part of the first ever Canadian basketball team to compete at World Games.
I am one of more than four and a half million athletes around the globe, and I've heard so many similar stories. Being Special Olympics athletes restores our pride and dignity.
Special Olympics also addresses critical health needs. Studies have shown that, on average, men with intellectual disabilities die 13 years younger than men without, and women with intellectual disabilities die 20 years younger than women without. Special Olympics keeps us healthy by getting us active and participating in sport. Also, our coaches teach us about nutrition and health. Special Olympics also provides free health screening for athletes who have difficulty communicating with their doctor or accessing health care.
At the 2015 World Summer Games, my Team Canada teammates and I played the Nigerian basketball team. The day before our game, the Nigerian basketball team went to the World Games Healthy Athlete screening, where seven of 10 members were given hearing aids for free and got to hear clearly for the first time.
The change in them was amazing. They were more excited, happy and confident, because their coach could vocally communicate with them. And they were emotional because they could hear the sounds of the basketball, the sounds of the whistle and the cheering fans in the stands — sounds that we take for granted. Special Olympics is transforming more than just the athlete in their sport. Special Olympics is transforming their lives off the field. This year, research findings showed that nearly half of the adults in the US don't know a single person with an intellectual disability, and the 44 percent of Americans who don't have personal contact with intellectual disabilities are significantly less accepting and positive.
Then there's the r-word, proving that people with intellectual disabilities are still invisible to far too many people. People use it as a casual term or an insult. It was tweeted more than nine million times last year, and it is deeply hurtful to me and my four and a half million fellow athletes around the planet. People don't think it's insulting, but it is. As my fellow athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens wrote in an open letter to a political pundit who used the r-word as an insult, "Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you walk away with your heart unchanged."
This year, at the 2015 World Summer Games, people lined up for hours to get into the final night of powerlifting competition. So it was standing room only when my teammate Jackie Barrett, the Newfoundland Moose, deadlifted 655 pounds and lifted 611 pounds in the squat —
setting huge new records for Special Olympics. Jackie is a record holder among all powerlifters in Newfoundland — not just Special Olympics, all powerlifters. Jackie was a huge star in LA, and ESPN live-tweeted his record-breaking lifts and were wowed by his performance.
Fifty years ago, few imagined individuals with intellectual disabilities could do anything like that. This year, 60,000 spectators filled the famous LA Memorial Coliseum to watch the opening ceremonies of World Games and cheer athletes from 165 countries around the world. Far from being hidden away, we were cheered and celebrated. Special Olympics teaches athletes to be confident and proud of themselves. Special Olympics teaches the world that people with intellectual disabilities deserve respect and inclusion.
Now, I have dreams and achievements in my sport, great coaches, respect and dignity, better health, and I am pursuing a career as a personal trainer.
I am no longer hidden, bullied and I am here doing a TED Talk.
The world is a different place because of Special Olympics, but there is still farther to go. So the next time you see someone with an intellectual disability, I hope you will see their ability. The next time someone uses the r-word near you, I hope you will tell them how much it hurts. I hope you will think about getting involved with Special Olympics.
I would like to leave you with one final thought. Nelson Mandela said, "Sports has the power to change the world." Special Olympics is changing the world by transforming four and a half million athletes and giving us a place to be confident, meet friends, not be judged and get to feel like and be champions.
Thank you very much.
How much do you know about intellectual disabilities? Special Olympics champion and ambassador Matthew Williams is proof that athletic competition and the camaraderie it fosters can transform lives, both on and off the field. Together with his fellow athletes, he invites you to join him at the next meet — and challenges you to walk away with your heart unchanged.
Matthew Williams believes that sport has the power to change lives.
Matthew Williams believes that sport has the power to change lives.