Special Olympics photoshoot promotes campaign for human-first language


Gold medals and beaming smiles flashed under studio lights on Sunday afternoon as athletes, family members and coaches posed for portraits.

The central New York chapter of the Special Olympics hosted a photoshoot at Light Work to prepare for “Spread the Word to End the Word Day.” Founded in 2009, the day was created to encourage people to stop using the R-word, according to Spread the Word’s website.

Cassandra Rucker, director of development for Central and Southern Tier Regions at Special Olympics New York, said the purpose of the event was to take pictures of the athletes, but they decided to host it closer to March 6 to help get the word out about the campaign.

Athletes from ages nine to more than 60 years old came to the studio to get their pictures taken and represent their sport. The central New York chapter of the Special Olympics currently has 22 Olympic sports for athletes to participate in.

Anna Henderson | Digital Design Editor

Omar Barry, a 16 year old who has been skiing in the Special Olympics for four years, said his favorite sport is skiing, but he participates in different sports throughout the year. His favorite part of being in the program, he said, is helping out the other athletes.

“My favorite part is when a new athlete joins, I like to help them,” Barry said. “I help them by telling them what’s gonna happen, what equipment you will need to bring.”

For Austynn Willson, a 9-year-old figure skater, the best part of competing in the Special Olympics is doing her program in competitions. In her program, Willson skates and dances to “Shake it Off,” by Taylor Swift, and said her favorite move is a turn.

After starting in August 2018, Willson has kept up with ice skating all year. Melissa Misiak, Willson’s figure skating coach, said the best part about being a coach has been watching Willson grow and seeing all of the improvements she has made in a short period of time.

“The best part is to have her see that she can do whatever she puts her heart and mind to, and she improves and she enjoys just doing it,” Misiak said.

In addition to having athletes come to the photoshoot, police officers also joined the group to support the event. Rucker said officers have partnered with Special Olympics New York for various fundraisers and activities.

One of their programs, “Cops on Top,” involves police officers on the rooftops of Dunkin’ buildings to fundraise for the Special Olympics. Dunkin’ is also one of the biggest sponsors of the Special Olympics, Rucker added.

“It’s really great to just be part of that community allowing everyone … to compete as one and be part of the athletic community,” said Lt. Christopher Koeppe of the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office.


Omar Barry, 16, has been skiing in the Special Olympics for four years. Molly Gibbs | Photo Editor

Rucker said she wanted the photoshoot this year to be different than the previous two. To get more Syracuse University students involved, she asked the SU Special Olympics Club’s president, Liza Dupler, if a photographer from SU could work the event.

Dupler found Hannah Frankel, a sophomore photography major at SU who has a sibling with Down syndrome. Rucker said it’s good to see support for the campaign from members of the SU community.

“There’s a lot of students at Syracuse University who they, themselves, have siblings with intellectual disabilities so they still come out and support regardless of what state they’re from or what part of the country they’re from,” Rucker said.

Aaron Tabak, a senior sports management major and intern for the Special Olympics New York Central Region, said that before his internship he wasn’t fully aware of the athletes’ strengths. After learning through the job, he said he knows he can be part of this organization for however long he wants to, even beyond his internship.

The photoshoot and Cops on Top are just two of the ways the central New York region of the Special Olympics support the athletes. They also put on various activities through the year, including a law enforcement torch run and a polar plunge that takes place the first week of December each year.

“We are always trying to spread awareness about our Special Olympics athletes and that they’re part of our community,” Rucker said.

Each of the athletes is like their own celebrity, Rucker said, and were eager to be photographed this past weekend to help spread the word.

“We don’t give out medals for participation, you earn your way,” she said. “So, they’re always happy to celebrate that and spreading the word of what the Special Olympics are — because it is our athletes.”

Contact Sarah: srslavin@syr.edu

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