Heads of global organizations attending the Special Olympics World Games this week in Los Angeles are calling for changes to ensure those who are intellectually disabled are not excluded by society.
The Special Olympics organization says more than 200 million people worldwide have intellectual disabilities, the largest disability group in the world. For many people with intellectual disabilities, participating in a Special Olympics event helps them feel accepted and included.
Special Olympics athlete Brightfield Shadi said growing up in Botswana was not easy.
“Lots of people, they do not easily accept people with [an] intellectual disability, and most of the people, they always tease you," he said. "So it is very hard.”
Whether it is in Botswana or the United States, people with intellectual disabilities share similar experiences.
“Do I feel discriminated against because of the color of my skin?" said Loretta Claiborne, another Special Olympics athlete. "I would say yes, a little, but my real discrimination still to this day [is] because of being a person with intellectual disability. I own my own home, I go to the bank, and the lady looks at me and says, 'Oh, you cannot handle this.' I said, 'Well, obviously I can, if you give me a chance and you listen to me.' ”
Giving those with intellectual disabilities a chance to contribute to society was the topic of discussion at a meeting of heads of global organizations in Los Angeles.
“All of the exclusion of children that we’re seeing and of people living with disabilities is very costly," said Anthony Lake, executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund, "and if we turn it around and start including them, we will see not only healthier societies and healthier citizens living with disabilities, but societies that are growing economically and prospering as well.”
Commitment to helping
Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver said leaders from governments and nongovernmental organizations are committed to improving the lives of people who have been too often excluded — "hopefully, at the level of the African Union, at the level of the global development banks, at the level of business leaders, sport stars, ministers, to promote inclusive education, to promote inclusive child care, to promote sport.”
Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noted that "in New York, member states of the United Nations are discussing what they call the sustainable development goals. In four of the 17 goals, featured for the first time, [are] the needs of persons with disabilities.”
He said that with global and governmental support, negative attitudes within communities can be changed.
"At the level of the families and the communities, one has to deal with ignorance, with shame, with stigma, with discrimination and how to turn that to hope, to care and support,” Sy said.
The leaders said the answer includes education, knowledge and role models like Special Olympics athletes, including Claiborne.
“These athletes are out there, going out to be their best through sport," she said, "and they will take what they learned on that playing ground, if they are able, back to their country and be stronger better people.”
And they'll show that those with intellectual disabilities can contribute and enrich the lives of the people in their communities.