Student group advocates for Special Olympics

GVL/Spencer Miller

GVL/Spencer Miller

Colleen Schonfield

Revolutionizing limits and boundaries into strength and achievement is one among many accomplishments made by Special Olympics athletes to help blur the line between ability and disability. However, to eliminate that line completely, students at Grand Valley State University are working to promote equality and relegate the use of degrading language.

These students belong to SSOA, Students for Special Olympics Advocacy, which aims to enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

“One of the main words in the title is ‘advocacy,’” said Susan Sunden, faculty adviser for SSOA and professor in the College of Health Professions. “The club recognizes and believes that it’s very important to advocate for those who are more vulnerable than ourselves.”

The organization has grown from five members to nearly 60, and is comprised of student volunteers from a variety of majors. The group volunteers in Area 12, which serves Ottawa and Allegan counties and boasts 490 Special Olympics athletes. Alpine skiing, gymnastics, basketball and aquatics are among the number of sports participants can compete in.

Despite advocating on behalf of those with intellectual disabilities, SSOA collectively establishes equality by integrating student members to practice and compete against Special Olympics athletes.

“They (athletes) love it…At every end of each season, they are so thankful,” said Aubrie Hurt, president of SSOA. “They don’t have a lot of social opportunities, so this is a chance to make friends.”

Hurt, a GVSU senior pursuing graduate school in occupational therapy, said it’s important to get involved in order to increase exposure and eliminate stereotypes. In an effort to spread this message, members of SSOA act on the underlying principle of promoting friendship, acceptance and inclusion with high emphasis placed on eliminating the use of the word “retarded.”

On Thursday, the organization hosted “Spread the Word to End the Word” as an event to support a national campaign called Spread the Word. The campaign was created by the Special Olympics and aims to raise awareness about the derogatory nature and hurtfulness of the R-word.

“Our goal is to bring the event to high schools and middle schools in the area because that’s usually the age range of when people start using the R-word,” Hurt said.

The campaign asks people to pledge to stop saying the R-word as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people. Hurt said students can sign the pledge inside of Kirkhof.

“People with intellectual disabilities are some of the most wonderful people,” Sunden said. “It’s important to stand up and advocate service for these folks through Special Olympics.”

To learn more about SSOA, visit their Facebook page at

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