Special Olympics Athlete: Focus on Ability

Posted by Melissa Moreland
August 2, 2015
Special Olympics Athlete Ricardo Thornton addresses the Foreign Policy Classroom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, July 28, the State Department hosted longtime Special Olympics athlete Ricardo Thornton for a Foreign Policy Classroom session on the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2015. This event coincided with the kickoff of the games on Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Los Angeles, California, as well as the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ricardo Thornton was joined by Ryan Murphy, SportsUnited Program Officer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The speakers addressed high school and undergraduate students, discussing the Special Olympics and how the State Department’s work in Sports Diplomacy builds upon our global commitment to advance the rights and participation of youth, women, girls, and people with disabilities around the world. The State Department, through sports programming, helps underserved youth around the world develop important leadership skills, achieve academic success, promote tolerance and respect for diversity. Thornton and Murphy both highlighted the great progress that has been made to expand upon the rights of persons with disabilities globally; the speakers noted that there is still much work to be done, both here domestically in the United States and around the world. 

Student asks Special Olympics Athlete Ricardo Thornton a question during the Foreign Policy Classroom at the U.S. Department of State on July 28, 2015 [State Department Photo]

Thornton, a Washington, D.C. native, detailed his life experiences and adversities he overcame as a person living with an intellectual disability. Raised in an institution, he fought society’s labels placed on persons with disabilities. When his institution closed, he began working at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, D.C., where he has remained for over 34 years. 

For 40 years, Thornton has participated in virtually every sports program offered by Special Olympics District of Columbia and has served on its Board of Directors. He has represented Special Olympics D.C. at two World Games and has traveled throughout the world promoting the Special Olympics mission and values to leaders such as former South Africa president Nelson Mandela. Thornton also serves as an international ambassador with Special Olympics.  Despite falling short of making the travelling team this year, the now grey-haired athlete smiled coyly, is content that his advocacy has led to so many more athletes trying to participate in the games.

Ricardo Thornton carries the Flame of Hope with Nelson Mandela at the 2001 Special Olympics World Games [Courtesy of SpecialOlympics.org]

Thornton is an active member of the District’s self-advocacy coalition, Project ACTION!, and is a passionate advocate for rights for persons with intellectual disabilities. He stressed to the audience that labels often crudely used to describe disabled individuals are not helpful, stating unequivocally that “it’s not about the label, it’s about the ability.” Thornton encouraged the students to become advocates themselves, and professed a world vision where those with disabilities can thrive in every respect they choose, with institutional support. 

Foreign Policy Classroom, launched in 2012, is an ongoing program designed to give students an opportunity to attend relevant foreign policy briefings with State Department officials. For additional information about the Foreign Policy Classroom program email ForeignPolicyClassroom@state.gov

About the Author: Melissa Moreland serves in the Office of Public Engagement in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

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