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5 Things You Should Know Before Serving on a Special Olympics Board

Ben Haack served for 9 years on the Board of his local Program, Special Olympics Australia. We asked him to share his advice for young Athlete Leaders in Africa Region wanting to do the same.
Close up of Ben Haack, in a suit jacket, speaking into a microphone.
Benjamin Haack, Special Olympics Board of Directors member and Special Olympics Australia athlete.

The key challenge for an Athlete Leader on a Board is: how do I develop a voice? A voice that is powerful enough and clear enough so that all the big business, corporate leaders from various backgrounds sitting on my Board truly see people with disabilities as their customer, and not be focused on everything else?

This is a big challenge for any Athlete Leader to take on. How do you do it?

1. Be Willing To Learn

You need to be willing to learn about the people you are engaging with, including what sector they are from, and how that operates. So really you need to basically learn about Corporate Business and how that works.

You need to really sit back and listen to what they say. This means really trying to be open and present in meetings, and to start to figure out what is driving the people on your board.

You also need to be willing to seek advice, and develop mentors who can support you. This is key.

When I first started, I basically had to learn:

  1. Finances. What are the various ways they are looked at and measured in the corporate sector?
  2. Research. This includes Athlete Leaders thinking about how people who publish research think about intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), and how they view this sector. It’s important to note that we need the research conversation to be led by people with IDD. Be willing to conduct your own research in areas like Health for people with IDD, Education for people with IDD, etc.
  3. Influence. How to influence people, change the Board, and potentially change the game.
  4. Voting. How to influence, how to ring up and what to be aware of. How to develop ways, such as by email or phone call, to engage with Board members about their votes and the issues around voting. Be aware of what is going on, and how you can be able to influence change.
  5. Confidentiality. What to say, how to say it and who to say it to.
  6. Values. You need to learn what the other board members feel is important. How do they they view reputation, inclusion, disability? What do they think would make make us successful, etc.

These are example of what I mean by learning. I learn by asking people around me, looking things up and just by being willing to continually develop. I still do that today, and I don’t profess to be an expert. I believe we all need to be willing to learn constantly.

The day we stop learning, is the day we should stop.

2. Prepare to Be Challenged

I also had to learn how to deal with some challenging circumstances as well!

Back then, Special Olympics was a different place. Certainly on Boards, it was. Too often, Boards were very business and corporate orientated, and the athlete representative was just a legal requirement. Sure, there have been improvements, and the strength of Athlete Leadership and good Boards are growing, but without constant work there would still be Boards that are running like this today.

So, I do feel that I do need to talk about this tough aspect of being on a Board.

There may come a time where your role and the nature of it will be called into question. I have dealt with this a lot! Boards may want to write emails questioning your role, how effective it is, they may want to question your mentor, and how they operate. You may face open AGM’s where they may question your role, what part of the country you are from, how long you should serve, or even the fact that we have athletes on a Special Olympics Board.

These are what they call tough conversations. The key to all of these is to stay calm, to fake confidence even if you don’t feel it, and to try and figure out what is going on. Sometimes people will want to play games, sometimes they will have a political agenda. Sometimes they will even want to make it personal. The key is to try and understand this.

In times like this, you should seek advice from your mentor, seek advice from other board members, and really try to stay strong. The biggest key for any Athlete Leader is to show strength: this will diffuse any attempts to remove athletes from the conversation.

Stay strong, and just breathe!

Also, the key to dealing with a situation where you are getting attacked, or having people attack you with tough questions and personal statements, is to focus on your breathing. The key is to always stay at a level above them, not stoop down to their level.

Dikembe Mutombo stands tall surrounded by Daina Shilts, Brightfield Shadi and Ben Haack on a football (soccer) field.
Athlete leaders Daina Shilts, Brightfield Shadi, and Ben Haack with Special Olympics Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo during the celebrity game at the inaugural Special Olympics Unified Cup in Chicago on 20 July, 2018.

3. Find Your Voice

So, once you start to develop a good understanding of the corporate business aspect of being on a Board, now it is time to figure out your voice and your personal contribution to all of this.

For me, I wanted my contribution to be about more than just myself.

I wanted to develop a good understanding of the sector I was representing, so I could have some good tools to use. So, I did my own research, on things like:

  1. The lack of access and challenges for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in schools.
  2. The definitions of disability, particularly around high functioning autism spectrum disorder.
  3. The unequal rate of diagnosis for IDD compared in men and women, and the challenges women with IDD face.
  4. How inclusive sport can benefit people with IDD.
  5. How people with a disability are portrayed in the media.
  6. The idea of “tokenism” and the illusion of inclusion that can be put forward by businesses and organizations without meaningful change.
  7. The challenges faced by family members and siblings of people with IDD.
  8. The unequal access to health care and the health challenges of people with IDD.

By doing this, I then had tools that I could use. This empowered me to fight the necessary battles that I would need to fight on the Board.

4. Challenge Board Members to Walk the Talk

This research also made me realize that fundamentally, the community of people with disabilities and the disability sector, is still not seen as equal in the marketplace or within the greater society. This is one of biggest challenges for any athlete on a Board.

To me, this is the reason why so many Boards and Board members talk about, and act, in the way they do when it coms to Special Olympics. There is still an idea in this movement that if we serve everybody else first, and make things work for the big political corporate agenda, that we will get resources and then help our athletes. To a certain extent that is true, but the problem with that is a few things:


The corporate world still views people with disabilities in a low light. Sure, these days there is an appetite for ‘inclusion’ and to be seen as inclusive, but how much of it is real and not just tokenism? Is it “inclusion” that only suits those without disabilities, or will it truly serve this community?

For me, I still see so many examples of this. The last person on the chain to truly get a benefit, is the person with the disability.

To me how do we truly resolve the actual problem we are trying to solve, which is people like me becoming a tangible sector and market? Not just serving everybody else.

Inclusion Movement, or Business?

How do we see the movement of Special Olympics? Are we an inclusion movement? Or do we view it as business? Are we prioritizing our athletes, or are we doing things to suit the other key stakeholders, including staff members?

What is Our Priority?

What are our conversations, and what are we really talking about? So often when we are talking about our Games and competitions, the conversation focuses on the politics and economics: marketing, revenue, how to get big business on board… That takes priority, and not really our athletes, and what they need and want.

Urgent Enough?

I often used to say in Board meetings that the rare thing about the Special Olympics movement is that our key ‘customer’, the Special Olympics athlete, will often say that Special Olympics has saved their life, or has given them a life. Their life now has meaning because of Special Olympics. The problem though is that it is people with disabilities. This is a perception that I have seen play out.

5. Put the Athlete First

These are just some examples of the philosophical challenges that face Special Olympics, and what an Athlete Leader can face on a Board. So, what should an athlete do?

Now, all of this is what I did. I’m not saying every Athlete Leader must do the same thing. The truth of this is, is that every athlete does need to be open and willing to learn about Boards, the corporate and business side of things, and the sector other Board members represent or the areas of interest they have.

An Athlete Leader needs to research things like Athlete Leadership, Health, Marketing, Research, and Sport. Through this research, you can equip yourself with tools. And absolutely you need a good mentor too, who can help you do this and give you advice.

An athlete should use every opportunity to be convincing, and not back down from challenging the Board through their voice and efforts to focus on the athlete as their customer.

Board members must focus on serving athletes. There are other players we need to work with, but by being more forceful and stronger in our core mission, we can put the intellectual disability sector on a better trajectory. In other words, we need to help Boards find the balance between the mission and the business. This is what an Athlete Leader on the Board can do.

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