Special Olympics hopes Farrelly brothers comedy changes perceptions

NEW YORK: At first glance, The Ringer may look like a film that pokes fun at the expense of intellectually disabled athletes competing in the Special Olympics.

NEW YORK: At first glance, The Ringer may look like a film that pokes fun at the expense of intellectually disabled athletes competing in the Special Olympics.

The movie features Johnny Knoxville as a non-disabled man who pretends to have an intellectual disability so he can enter the Special Olympics.

But not only did the Special Olympics agree to allow its name and likeness be used by the filmmakers, it has helped promote Ringer as a film that people should see to expand their understanding of the Special Olympics and intellectually disabled people.

The movie also boasts over 200 intellectually disabled cast members, including many in the starring roles.

Co-producer Peter Farrelly (of There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber fame) first met with the Special Olympics board of directors in late 2000, according to Kirsten Seckler, director of media and PR for the Special Olympics.

The board was impressed at how passionately he wanted to make the movie and how positive he felt it would be for the public's perceptions of the intellectually disabled. When the organization received a script, Seckler said the organization shared it with athletes and other concerned parties.

The organization realized the benefit that a mainstream movie ? with a leading man who is popular with a young demographic ? would have on reversing stereotypes.

"When we shared the script with athletes, they all said, 'Great. [Some of] the kids who like him and watch Jackass are the kids who make fun of us,'" she said, adding that they realized the movie had the ability to change that demographic's attitudes.

The organization had recently commissioned the University of North Carolina to study film roles over the past 50 years for the intellectually disabled.

"People are seen in one of two categories: either as superheroes or victims," Seckler said. "This movie doesn't have that. The only vulnerable character is Johnny Knoxville; it's nice to see the movie breaking away from the stereotypical characters."

Now that the movie nears release, the Special Olympics has ramped up its outreach to both the media and other disability advocacy groups to get them excited about the opportunities.

The Special Olympic held a screening in the last week of September, and invited organizations like TASH (previously known as The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps) and the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), which issued a press release, supporting the movie.

In the release, Alan Brownstein, president of the NDSS, said that the movie offers "a unique opportunity for dispelling myths and providing accurate messages about [the NDSS] population."

The organization has also been working with Ringer production company Fox Spotlight on media relations.

"We have been promoting the movie to the media and trying to get people to screen the movie beforehand," Seckler said. "We've engaged our local programs and encourage all volunteers and athletes to grab a friend and go see the movie."

She added that the media was very enamored with many of the intellectually disabled actors.

Multiple media outlets have requested interviews with professional actor and Special Olympics athlete Eddie Barbanell, and ESPN Magazine is doing a feature on Leonard Flowers, the actor who plays star Special Olympics athlete Jimmy.

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