Impact on Employment & Social Skills

Participation Improves Athlete Social Skills and Employment Opportunities

 Special Olympics research is only beginning to truly explore the impact that its events and Programs have on athletes away from the playing field, but preliminary findings suggest that these gains are substantial. The improvements athletes make in social skills and relationship skills are often dramatic. In the United States, for example, approximately 90% of family members report improvement in both these sets of skills.4 Coaches are even more likely to note improvements, with approximately 95% reporting improvements in both areas.4

Studies in other countries also suggest improved social lives for Special Olympics athletes. A study of the Unified Football Pilot program in Austria, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia examined the benefits of inclusive teams on both athletes with intellectual disabilities and “partners” (athletes without intellectual disability).3 Findings indicate that a majority of athletes (60-100% depending on the country) participate in social activities together outside of practice and competition. While the majority of the social activities involve other athletes, many athletes (49% in Romania, for example) also report interacting with partners. This is important considering that in many of the participating countries, students with intellectual disabilities learn in separate schools. Taken as a whole, this study indicates that Special Olympics is a platform where athletes with intellectual disabilities can achieve inclusion rather than exclusion.

Research with young athletes (ages 2-7) also indicates that skills learned through participating in Special Olympics carry over into other aspects of the athletes’ daily lives. In a survey of teachers in Young Athlete Programs in Latin America, Europe and the United States, a majority say athletes exhibit such “adaptive behavior.”6 See Figure 1. For more information about this initiative, see the toolkit section “
Special Olympics Initiatives: Young Athletes.”

Another area that research indicates improvement for athletes off the playing fields is an elevation of status in their communities due to participation in Special Olympics. In China, for example, many family members interviewed noted that participation in Special Olympics brings pride and honor to the athlete, as well as the athlete’s family.

“Even children without intellectual disabilities do not have the opportunity to participate in international competition, but this child has been everywhere,” one family member noted.

“He caused a sensation in Fushun. He was covered by the reporters and got mentioned in the newspaper and on TV, which I think is a positive influence,” said another.

Employment for adults with intellectual disabilities is another topic studied by Special Olympics. In the United States, 52% of Special Olympics athletes are employed; approximately half of these athletes are “competitively employed” – employed alongside people without intellectual disabilities.4 Statistics vary in other countries but generally follow this trend. In Argentina, for example, 94% of those employed are working in unsupported jobs in their community or in family businesses.2

While cultural and other differences between countries need to be taken into account when interpreting these types of statistics, there appears to be a clear connection between participation in Special Olympics and the ability to be employed.

Employers, family members and athletes themselves often attribute job success to skills that were improved by participation in sports. “I credit Special Olympics with building his confidence and helping him perform well on the job. His competitive spirit and interactions with athletes translates well to the workplace,” one employer said.”


 1. Harada C, Parker R, Siperstein G. A comprehensive national study of Special Olympics programs in China. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston; 2008. 

 2. Harada C, Parker R, Siperstein G. A comprehensive national study of Special Olympics programs in Latin America: findings from Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston; 2008. 

 3. Norins J, Harada C, Brecklinghaus S. Inclusion of young people with intellectual disabilities in Europe through Special Olympics Unified Sports. Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics International; 2007. 

 4. Siperstein G, Hardman M, Harada C, Parker R, McGuire J. A comprehensive study of Special Olympics programs in the United States. Boston and Salt Lake City: University of Massachusetts Boston and University of Utah; 2005. 

 5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity and health: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; 1996. 

6. Favazza P, Siperstein G. Evaluation of Young Athletes program. Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics and University of Massachusetts-Boston; 2006