I will never forget my experiences working for ESPN during the 2015 and 2017 Special Olympics World Games along with doing an ESPY show or two and voiceovers. I was provided a chance that people with intellectual disabilities are never given. I was able to share my story and voice with the world.
One of my first roles with ESPN was during the Opening Ceremony at the 2015 World Games. The ceremony was broadcasted on live TV to millions of people. I was nervous and feeling enormous pressure on my shoulders. I was sharing a stage with First Lady, Michelle Obama, and many other celebrities. What happens if I say the wrong thing on air or I stumble over my words and they are unclear for the viewing audience? They will turn off the telecast or say, “why did ESPN hire this person to cover the games, and people with intellectual disabilities should not be reporters.”
It was not until I cracked a joke about Lindsay Czarniak’s bowling performance that I felt like I was where I belong and felt at home. That experience changed my life, but I never really knew how big of an impact it had, not just on me but everyone for people around the world. I was awestruck at the messages I received.
One message read, “Dustin you are the true hero in the world, and it is because of people like you that I put my life on the line and defend this country.” To receive such an endorsement and words of encouragement from a person in the armed forces was, to say the least, an honor.
Another message that hit home was from a parent of a child with an intellectual disability, “Thank you for showing me what my child can do with encouragement from the family. I will let my child know that anything is possible.”
It was then I knew that I needed to use the leadership skills I had learned while on camera to teach other athletes how to take on similar roles.
For me, it is important to see Special Olympics partners like ESPN, Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Company, and many others promote acceptance, inclusion, and collaboration/diversity in the workplace. We all learn from each other. Yes, Special Olympics is a sports organization, but I do not want to be included only in sports. I want to be a valuable member of society and give back to others.
For example, it is exciting that ESPN has now hired two athletes as reporters to cover Special Olympics events. This shows the world that they do not just want to partner with us, they want to include us with everything they do and live the life that so many of our athletes live. When in doubt, always #choosetoinclude and play unified. Likewise, Bank of America and The Coca-Cola Company are spreading acceptance by sharing the journey of Special Olympics athletes. The more people hear and learn that people with intellectual disabilities can graduate from college, succeed in the workplace, live independently, and be a positive person in society, the more communities will open their hearts and minds to inclusivity. And, we’ll all be stronger for that.
These types of partnerships really help some of our soft-spoken but inspiring athletes to come out of their shells. It gives them the boost to achieve their goals on and off the sports fields. My shell growing up was that I was quiet and did not have confidence. I was bullied, and I did not want to talk because I was afraid people would make fun of me. My exposure and experience with Special Olympics’ great partners have made me realize that my voice means just as much as anyone else’s. I found a passion for giving back and helping other Special Olympics athletes to find their voice. No one should be afraid to tell their story as we all are changing the world together.
My life-changing experiences and memories with ESPN have taught me that no goal or dream is ever too big. Don’t be afraid to tell your story and reach for your dreams. I did, and it changed my life.
Special Olympics Southern California