The City of Angels is alive with celebration.
Yesterday, sixty thousand fans came together at a sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to celebrate the 6,500 Special Olympics athletes who have arrived to share with the world their ability, bravery, and joy. Oversized billboards across the city celebrate their accomplishments and star-studded events highlight the Special Olympics World Games as the hottest ticket in town.
But this morning, at a roundtable of corporate executives, disability advocates (including Special Olympics athletes), development leaders, and heads of state, the conversation took a different tone. In this gathering on “inclusive global development,” the attention turned to the plight of more than 200 million individuals with intellectual disabilities around the world who are routinely denied access to appropriate healthcare, education, and even basic social inclusion.
“We know without a doubt that people with intellectual disabilities are isolated,” explained Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Tim Shriver who led the session.
But when it comes to the facts on individuals with intellectual disabilities around the world, the data is scarce. Just 27 percent of countries monitor the social outcomes of their citizens with an intellectual disability.
Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), described his organization’s commitment “to reach out to every child, one at a time, wherever they may be, to make sure they are included in development.” Osotimehin also emphasized the need for better data. “Data is the most important piece of intervention that we have to have if we are going to be able to account for everybody, include everybody, and, as we said, leave nobody behind.”
Yet, the little data that does exist paints a grim picture. In a 2009 exploratory analysis, Special Olympics estimates that individuals with an intellectual disability are 63 percent as likely to have access to education and 33 percent as likely to be employed than the rest of the population.
Access to quality healthcare is particularly challenging. Despite having higher rates of obesity and bone loss, as well as more frequent hearing, eyesight, and dental problems, people with intellectual disabilities often face health problems that go undiagnosed or untreated.
Special Olympics athlete and a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger Brightfield Shadi was on hand to describe his first-hand experience. In his home country, Botswana, a diagnosis of intellectual disability can mean lifelong isolation and stigma.
Special Olympics Athlete and Board Member Loretta Claiborne spoke candidly of discrimination she has faced—even as recently as a year ago—while seeking access to healthcare in the US. “We have a very long way to go,” explained Claiborne.
Stories like these, along with a growing public awareness of the challenges that face people with intellectual disabilities, motivated roundtable participants — which included Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, Olympic Gold Medalist Yuna Kim, Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow, and Rwanda President Paul Kagame — to commit to form new partnerships, develop new policies, and implement new programs to bring about greater inclusion.
For UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, who has brought people with disabilities to the forefront of his organization’s agenda, inclusive policies are pragmatic: “It is common sense that we need to invest in these children and these people for their sake and for the sake of our societies, because, if we don’t, we are not going to be able to reach our development goals.”
Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies described: “At an event like this, we feel there is no ‘them and us,’ just ‘we’; let’s take that back to the families and to the communities and help and support communities to reconcile themselves with their own members.”
The panel agreed that programs that facilitate greater social inclusion are key to making progress. UNICEF, for example, is partnering with Special Olympics in more than 30 countries to advance social inclusion through sport and other programming.
The importance of social inclusion is perhaps most evident in Shadi’s own story. After years of mockery and bullying in school, Shadi was introduced to Special Olympics in 2008 where he quickly gained confidence on the track. Today, Shadi is a coach and an assistant teacher in a primary school, and a global advocate for inclusion.
As Shriver added, “Exposure to, familiarity with, friendships among people with and without intellectual differences is the secret for change.”
As world leaders work together with advocates like Shadi and Claiborne to craft inclusive, pragmatic solutions, there is indeed cause to celebrate.