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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Empowering the Intellectually Disabled Through Sport


by Mary DavisRegional President, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia; Dec 5, 2013

Earlier this week, the nation not only celebrated Giving Tuesday, but International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For over 20 years, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities has been promoted by the United Nations as an international observance that promotes understanding of disability issues and mobilizes support for persons with disabilities. As the world's largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities through sport, health and education, it is a timely opportunity for us to reinforce our message of acceptance, dignity and respect for all people with disabilities.
A Vehicle for Ending Stigma
In Special Olympics we promote sport as a vehicle for ending discrimination and stigma of people with intellectual disabilities -- of which there are more than 200 million people in the world. The vast majority face a life of prejudice and discrimination, loneliness and limitation. Our number one challenge in Special Olympics is to end that.
For our mission to succeed, we have to be able to do two things: First, to reach out to people with intellectual disabilities and their families and welcome them onto the field of sport. Secondly, we must be able to communicate the message of their abilities as a way of overturning stigma and prejudice. If we don't do both, we're not successful.
A Massive Social Problem
People say sport is good for health; for confidence; for teamwork -- this is all so true. But we have a slightly sharper edge. We are confronting a massive social problem. It's not just about teamwork and confidence. That's nice and it's good. But this is about the World's oldest prejudice -- against people who have a greater challenge learning and participating.
Access to and participation in sport and physical education provide an opportunity to experience social inclusion for people otherwise marginalized by social, cultural or religious barriers caused by disability or other forms of discrimination. Through sport, our athletes experience equality, freedom and a dignifying means for empowerment. Sport, we believe, is a unique life-changing vehicle for people with intellectual disabilities because we're dealing with people who are marginalized and discriminated against and who have so many challenges with traditional educational environments and traditional pathways to full inclusion. Sport becomes an alternative that is almost unique in their lives.
Special Olympics
Special Olympics bring together more than 4.2 million athletes with intellectual disabilities across 175 countries. We provide year round training and competition opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities in 33 different sports every single day. We don't just support athletes but their families too.
In the area of public health, Special Olympics is the world's largest public health organization working to address the persistent disparities in access to quality health care services for people with intellectual disabilities through our Healthy Athlete Program. Last year alone, more than 13,100 volunteer healthcare professionals gave of their time and expertise to conduct 116,000 health screenings worldwide for our athletes in 100 countries. In many cases these screenings provide an opportunity for athletes to see a doctor for the very first time. In some cases the lives of our athletes have been saved through the detection and treatment of medical ailments the athletes and their families didn't even know they had.
Breaking Barriers
In Special Olympics we believe by bringing together those with and without intellectual disabilities to compete and participate on the same playing field, divisions and barriers are broken down and prejudices and discrimination eliminated far quicker. We say to live unified, we must play unified and that is what the Special Olympics Unified Sports program is about.
As we mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities this week, we must not lose sight of the core tenants of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They represent the most fundamental rights of all persons regardless of ability level: the right to health care services; the right to education; the right to an environment safe from exploitation and abuse; the right to sports activities; and most importantly the right to be included as an equal member of society.
Inspiring People Worldwide
Sport is a powerful vehicle and Special Olympics athletes show their strengths and abilities through participation. Each athlete has a different story, but each story has much in common. From the athletics track to the football field; from the bowling alley to the basketball court, our athletes show their courage and the results of all their training and hard work. Special Olympics is thriving proof of the commonality of the human spirit; that color, creed, ability and background are irrelevant in the pursuit of a shared goal.
Special Olympics inspires people across the world to think beyond the normal bounds of possibility. People with intellectual disabilities are empowered to achieve their dreams and family members see loved ones grow in self-confidence and self-worth. With each athlete's experience, there comes a lasting legacy of attitudes changed and an ability to welcome and accept that which is different.
The Power of Sport
All of us at Special Olympics ask you to remember that people with an intellectual disability are talented rounded people. Yes, they need specific supports, but they have the same expectations, hopes and abilities as everyone else -- the desire to contribute, participate, form relationships and friendships and compete on the sports field. The power of Sport is the vehicle that changes the lives of our athletes over and over again.

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