EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a guest post from Branko Stojakovic Astorne, a Special Olympics athlete in Peru. He is a self-advocate and a member of the Special Olympics Global Athlete Health Advisory Committee.
I was invited to participate in a pediatric dentistry post-graduate class, at the Universidad Científica del Sur. The class was about how to provide care for people with intellectual disabilities.
I arrived, very excited at 6:50 a.m. with Dr. Gonzalo Larrabure [Special Olympics Latin America’s Director of Health Programs]. I took a desk, just like any other student, while Dr. Gonzalo introduced me as an external observer from Special Olympics, without ever mentioning my disability.
Upon entering the classroom, we listened to two presentations about the different types of patients with special needs and how they should be treated. They mentioned autism, mental retardation, Down and Asperger syndromes. After they concluded their presentations, I told them that those disabilities are part of the group known as intellectual disability, and asked them not to use the term “mentally retarded” so as not to sound rude.
I also told them that there are several levels of each of the types, such as mild, moderate and severe. Afterwards, I thanked the university for the chance to share my own experience in the class.
Dr. Gonzalo told the students that I have a mild intellectual disability, and they were stunned. He told them that I was perfectly capable of succeeding in life, and that I had showed that by being there that day. He also told them that I was the leader of an Association for Young Leaders with Different Abilities. He mentioned that I am someone who fights for these people, to include them in society.
I told them that the government only takes care of a section of the people with intellectual disabilities, but people like me are often invisible to them. When asked how I feel about that, I would say that I feel like a ghost, ignored by everybody.
Finally, we talked about how doctors should treat people with intellectual disabilities.
It was a great and unique experience for me. I never thought that I would end up in a classroom as an external observer. At first, I felt happy, but anxious, but as time went by, I felt more comfortable and I listened to the speeches of the ladies. I was feeling respected for the first time in my life, visible to the students in the classroom; even though they never asked me a question, possibly because they were surprised by my disability, considering the fact that I am independent. This experience was something new to me, which I never expected would happen, but it brought me immense happiness.