The International AIDS Conference was held this year for the first time in the US since 1990. But like every one before it, there was little attention to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities (ID). And this, despite the fact that people with disabilities may be up to three times more likely to contract HIV, according to the UNAIDS Strategy for Integrating Disability into AIDS Programmes, likely because of their risk for physical abuse, isolation, poverty and lack of access to services and information.
Political leaders, community members, corporations, and organizations should be able to do better. And they can. We should be able to guarantee that every person is free of abuse and victimization. We should be able to guarantee that people with ID not be discriminated against by health care systems and its providers. We should be able to insist that efforts to promote the health and education of children in the developing world should include all children. And perhaps most importantly, we should insist that people with ID live free from humiliation, ridicule, stigma and are given the chance to reach their full potential.
All these goals are achievable. And they all depend on one important first step: a recognition that every person has a gift. Without that common ground, equality will never even be sought. But with it, only equality will suffice.
Through Aaron Banda, now a Special Olympics athlete in Malawi, we learn that these goals are achievable if everyone does their part. A Special Olympics volunteer in Mangulu, Malawi was paying door-to-door visits to participants in his local health promotion program when he stumbled upon a child who was tied by a rope to a tree outside his family’s home. Aaron, a nine-year old boy with an intellectual disability, had been tethered by his parents for seven years; it was their method for managing the demands of a child with a disability while also raising four other children. While most children’s first steps are met with cheer, Aaron’s first steps were met with limitation, and a forced bondage both literal and figurative. As a result of the community leader’s discovery of Aaron, today, he is visited three times a week by a Special Olympics coach who works with him to develop basic kinesthetics, has gained acceptance in his community and family and is receiving critical health services to further his development. It should be underscored, however, that it was the Special Olympics volunteer, who had the power to unbind his wrists. And it is only the mutual support of others in the community and organizations providing services that can transform the attitude of his parents and members of the community. Aaron represents the millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities throughout the developing world suffering and facing injustice.
If this ideal seems quaint but unrealistic, come to your local Special Olympics competition sometime soon. You might be shocked by the goodness of the human spirit and refreshed in your belief that we are capable of much more than we sometimes think. Last year, there were over 53,000 Special Olympics competitions in more than 170 countries and every one was a lesson in dignity and empowerment. At over 800 of those games, athletes not only played sports but also participated in health screenings, education, and referral services making Special Olympics the largest public health outreach effort in the world. And tens of thousands of those games took place in schools where young people shape their attitudes toward difference. The meaning of universal value was demonstrated, taught, exposed and embraced. But, there is so much more to be done.
So the Special Olympics athletes like Loretta and Tim, who fearlessly defy the odds and the Special Olympics volunteers who work fearlessly to fight for our athletes to be treated as human beings in the fullest sense possible, we are asking everyone to Be Fearless for the sake of equality for all, whether it be in your business, organization, community or home and do your part to ensure people with ID are able to reach their full potential. The ending of the cycle of poverty and children and adults like Aaron are counting on you to be fearless.