Safety, Security and Special Olympics Standards, Policies and Procedures


Why These Guidelines are Necessary


From its beginnings, Special Olympics Ontario had a vision of providing a safe place for people with intellectual disabilities to gather, in the spirit of sport, for friendship, competition and fun.  We are proud of the fact that so many athletes with intellectual disabilities look forward to coming to Special Olympics as an important part of their routine. It has been our goal to ensure that the trust that athletes and their families give to us as an organization is well placed.  We take this trust seriously.


Special Olympics Ontario is not naïve.  We are well aware of the statistics of the abuse of people with intellectual disabilities.  It has always been our hope that our organization would not be touched by the tragedy of abuse.  It has become clear to us that we must not simply hope that Special Olympics will be a safe place for people with intellectual disabilities to be. We must actively work towards being abuse-free.


The Purpose of the Guidelines


The guidelines that follow have three purposes.  First, and foremost, they are to create within the Special Olympics Ontario movement, intolerance of abuse in any form, but of sexual abuse in particular.  Secondly, they are to ensure that all who provide staff and volunteer support understand what boundaries need to be in place between themselves and an athlete with an intellectual disability.  Thirdly, they are to give clear and practical procedures that must be followed when abuse is suspected or reported. Special Olympics Ontario is committed to providing a safe place for people with intellectual disabilities to enjoy the physical and social benefits of sport and competition.


Some Background


It is not necessary, in this booklet, to outline all the statistics of abuse.  What is important to know is that people with disabilities suffer from sexual abuse in huge numbers.  In fact, all the research shows that people with intellectual disabilities are the most vulnerable to abuse in our society.  What is even more disturbing is that most of the abuse is done by those who are in a care providing role. This means that the abusers not only come from positions of trust, but they also come from positions of power.  Abusers have been family members, group home support staff, transportation providers and, sadly, coaches in amateur sport, including coaches for Special Olympics.


We want to join the movement towards a safer society for people with disabilities.  Special Olympics Ontario wants to be part of the solution. We recognize that the statistics are appalling, we recognize that we have a responsibility to respond, we recognize that where there are power inequities there will be abuse.  As such, we recognize that abuse statistics are about numbers, but that victims are people who need protection and to be empowered.


Special Olympics Ontario currently has an extensive screening process in place for all volunteers. This includes a personal interview, 2 character reference checks and a police records check.  


Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that all potential abusers will be caught or does it prevent people from committing an offence while a coach or volunteer with Special Olympics Ontario.  There has been research to show that organizations like Special Olympics Ontario can make changes that will reduce the likelihood of abuse. Although we know that we can never become completely abuse free, we can take responsibility for making changes that will reduce the likelihood that it will happen.


Our vision has not changed. We still want to be a welcome place for people with intellectual disabilities to come and enjoy the wonderful spirit of camaraderie through sport.  But our vision has broadened. We want also to be a place where people with intellectual disabilities can come and feel secure, safe and well supported.




By the time that people are five or six years old they begin to establish some boundaries.  The first boundary that children learn is very basic: public and private. Even in this children learn by degrees, first learning about public and private body parts, then leaning about public and private places and finally learning about public and private topics of conversation.  Boundaries are learned slowly and systematically as we grow into adulthood. When we have reached our teen years, we have established boundaries regarding physical and emotional closeness.


We know that when there is an intellectual disability, these boundaries can be hard to learn.  We know from talking to parents and caregivers of athletes that these boundaries can be incredibly difficult to teach.  We also know, from talking to abuse prevention experts and police, that boundary skills are some of the most important skills that people with disabilities need to keep themselves safe from abuse and to keep themselves safe from making mistakes that result in the abuse of others.


As part of the process of learning boundaries, people with disabilities need those who provide support to them, either in a paid or volunteer capacity, to establish boundaries in a firm and clearly understood and consistent manner.  Learning will happen if all those in positions of trust communicate in a warm but firm way, that there are boundaries that will not be crossed while in relationship with one another.


Relationship Boundaries


Coaches and Volunteers are volunteers; they are not friends, family, counsellors or therapists.  By taking on the role of coach, a volunteer understands that they have assumed a role that is inherently power based.  Without question, this role also comes along with the dual role of mentor, but it does not translate into an affectional relationship similar to being a parent or a trusted peer friend.


Relationship Guidelines


  1. Coaches will refer to themselves as coaches, and athletes will be encouraged to use the word “coach.”  Volunteers will refer to themselves as volunteers or helpers at specific events.
  2. When athletes ask, “Are you my friend?”  Volunteers and coaches will respond by saying some version of, “I’m your coach, I care about you, but my role here is coach.”
  3. When athletes ask, “Do you love me?”  Coaches will respond by saying something like, “I love coming to Special Olympics and being a coach, I like being able to help you, but I don’t love you.”
  4. Should circumstances develop that an athlete begins to confide personal information to a volunteer, it is important that the volunteer either re-directs that conversation by saying, “What you are telling me is very personal, you need to talk to someone else about that.  We are here for sport, let’s get back to it.” (The exception here is if the individual begins to report abuse. Guidelines for dealing with abuse reports will follow.)
  5. Should an athlete need assistance with some form of personal care, it is best that their typical care provider provide this.
  6. If it is not possible for the typical care provider to provide this service, the volunteer will do so only under the following conditions:
    1. the individual consents to assistance by the volunteer
    2. the volunteer has been given adequate information to provide the service safely
    3. the volunteer follows a routine that reduces the numbers of boundaries (e.g. sight, touch) that are broken
    4. only one volunteer provide this assistance when on a trip
    5. Where there is more than one volunteer on a trip, the individual will be consulted regarding their preference.


All of these guidelines will result in power being given back to the athlete.


  1. As a coach or volunteer with Special Olympics Ontario, never put yourself at risk. Should the individual requiring assistance have a history of making false allegations of abuse, Special Olympics personnel under no circumstances will provide intimate care.  It should be suggested that a “worker” or “support person” should accompany this athlete to practice and competition.


Physical Boundaries


Physical touch is a necessary part of sport.  It is arguably also an essential part of coaching.  Even here, however, there needs to be clear boundaries.  Coaches and volunteers will never touch private body parts, will never bear hug an athlete, will never stroke an athlete’s hair, and will never kiss an athlete on the mouth.


Physical touch in coaching, however, falls into two categories.  The first is regarding touch that is used for encouragement or affection.  However, as noted, there are very clear rules regarding this form of touch.  The second is regarding touch that is used while teaching or instructing an athlete on how to maximize their potential in their sport.  Some touch is necessary to teach stances, movements and techniques.


Because there are two forms of touch, there follows two sets of guidelines.


Physical Guidelines: Encouragement and Affection


  1. The only acceptable hug is a side to side hug, with the volunteer reaching across an athletes back and embracing the athlete between the hollow of the volunteers’ arm and the touch of the hand against the athletes’ outer arm.  This eliminates the need for a front to front hug as this crosses several personal boundaries.
  2. Even when asked for a bear (full body) hug, a volunteer will respond by saying, “I’m your coach (or volunteer), I don’t touch you like that.”
  3. When using the side to side hug, should the athlete begin to use affectional talk, or begin to engage in affectional behaviour (laying their head against the volunteer), the volunteer will say, “That makes me uncomfortable, I think it’s best that we don’t hug each other any more.”  After this it’s best to use other forms of affectional greetings and touch.
  4. Volunteers will work to establish a variety of ways of communicating encouragement and affection.  Using signs, like thumbs up, winks and nods the volunteer can encourage without touching. Using minimal touch can have maximum benefits, like high fives, a punch or tap to the arm, a tap on the back.  All volunteers need to work to reduce the amount of physical contact they use in their roles with the athlete.
  5. Hugs will happen spontaneously after victory, in the heat of the moment.  When this happens the volunteer needs to be aware that a boundary has been crossed.  After it’s all over, the volunteer needs to say to the individual, “It’s great that you won, you know that the hug that we had there was because of the excitement.  It doesn’t mean that we are going to start touching each other differently now.”


Physical Guidelines: Coaching: Modelling: Shaping


  1. Whenever a coach is going to touch an athlete to demonstrate a stance or a skill, the athlete will be asked if it’s OK for the touch to happen.
  2. When an athlete says “No” the coach will not ask again, nor will the volunteer try to persuade the athlete to change their mind.
  3. Where the volunteer feels it is impossible to coach the individual because of this lack of consent, the coach will inform the athlete’s care provider and arrange to work through a support person the athlete trusts or to re-evaluate the individuals’ readiness for this particular sport.
  4. When an athlete says, “Yes” the coach will say “Right now I’m going to help you learn how to…that makes me like a teacher.”
  5. Before touching the person, begin parallel talk, this means that you will be describing what you are doing at all times.  “OK, I’m going to put my arm around your shoulder because I want to show you how to stand when you are….” “Now I’m going to take your hand with the ball in it and then we’re going to…” During the entire touch encounter the parallel talk will not only help with the learning process but it will also make it clear that the touch serves a purpose of teaching a specific sport skill.
  6. After the practice has been completed, the coach will step away from touching the athlete and say “OK, we’re done with me helping you with that skill for today.”
  7. Should an athlete try to increase the amount of physical touch after a teaching session, the coach needs to say something like, “I have finished with helping you learn that new skill and you know that we don’t touch like that.”


Affectional Boundaries


Volunteers are people and people develop attachments when in regular contact with others.  During the course of volunteer employment with Special Olympics Ontario, it is considered inappropriate for volunteers to develop friendships or love relationships with those in their care.


Affectional Guidelines


  1. It is not uncommon for athletes to develop crushes on their coaches.  These feelings are natural. Volunteer need to be very aware than when a crush exists, they need to adhere very strongly to the boundaries set out in this guide.
  2. Should athletes’ affectional behaviour be uncomfortable to the volunteer, this needs to be reported to their Special Olympics Ontario contact.
  3. Should a volunteer develop affectional ties (that did not exist before the volunteer’s involvement with Special Olympics) to an athlete that leads to contact outside the guidelines set out by Special Olympics Ontario, this relationship needs to be reported to Ontario Special Olympics.  It will then be determined if the role of volunteer is in conflict with the personal relationship.
  4. Where a personal relationship exists before the volunteer’s involvement with Special Olympics (family or friend) the volunteer will follow the same boundary rules for all athletes.  It is inappropriate to hug an athlete who is a family member and not hug other athletes. When at a practice or competition, parents are to view themselves as volunteers, not friends or family, in terms of physical contact.  This ensures consistency for all athletes.


Informational Boundaries


The role of coach and volunteer is a powerful one and there is the need for trust between volunteer and athlete.  It is important to remember that a volunteer is not a therapist or a counsellor. It is also important to know that people with intellectual disabilities are often very comfortable with sharing very personal information due to a lack of understanding about boundaries and about safety.  Therefore it is important that very personal information that an individual wishes to be shared be directed to a more appropriate time, place and person. (Disclosure of abuse is the only exception and guidelines follow.)


Informational Guidelines


  1. When an athlete says, “Can I tell you a secret?” It is best to say, “I’m your coach, you share secrets with friends and family.”  If the person says, “But I don’t have any friends,” help them to identify a safe person to talk to…staff, minister, or counsellor.
  2. Should an athlete begin to talk about very personal material, sexuality, boyfriend/girlfriend issues, or money, it is best to say, “Hey we’re at a sporting event, this is a very public place.  Those are private things and should not be talked about here.” Again, you can help them to identify a safe person to talk to.
  3. If an athlete asks you questions of a personal nature, regarding, for example, your personal relationships, your sexuality, your finances…it is best to respond without emotion, saying, “That’s a very personal question.  I don’t answer personal questions.” You may, of course, answer general questions regarding marital status, number of kids, if you are comfortable with doing so.
  4. Should an athlete ask questions about personal subjects, “How do babies get made?” “What do you call a man’s private parts?” Tell them that these are good questions but that they need to ask their parent/caregiver/support person.
  5. Should an athletes’ preliminary questions or comments raise concerns for you, for example, you think they may have been beginning to disclose abuse, you need to call your Special Olympics Ontario advisor immediately.  (See page 8 for contact information.)


Space Boundaries


Sometimes athletes and their coaches will be sharing the same space, i.e. Bunking together with the team in a large shared space (gym, schoolroom).  In this circumstance, it is important that the volunteers think about boundaries and create space that allows for privacy for both the athletes and themselves.


  1. Organize the space using natural barriers (or create barriers by using line and sheets) so that there is a private area for volunteers and a private area for athletes.  These are the spaces in that individuals will dress and undress.
  2. Establish rules that no one, volunteer or athlete is in the common areas without pyjamas and a housecoat.  If someone breaks the rule, send him or her into their private dressing area to get dressed.
  3. Housecoats will be taken off just before crawling into bed and will be put on just after rising.
  4. If there is a need for night time supervision, coaches will sleep separate from the athletes but with their beds in a position to provide supervision.
  5. If there isn’t a need for supervision, coaches will sleep behind a barrier giving and taking maximum privacy.
  6. Unless an athlete requires some kind of intimate assistance and unless a specific volunteer is assigned to provide that assistance, the volunteer should never see the private parts of an athlete.
  7. There is never a circumstance that would make it acceptable for an athlete to see the private parts of a volunteer or coach.
  1. Should the volunteer/coach feel that an athlete is spying on them or attempting to catch them disrobed, this information will be immediately passed on to Special Olympics Ontario staff as it may indicate that the athlete has some issues that need to be dealt with.