Special Olympics

The Every Day Movement
02/24/2014 10:16

The 6th of April marks an important date and milestone for the global community.  It represents a firm commitment to harness the power of sport, a global common denominator, to generate core advancements in the areas of human development, social development, and peace.  Whether it manifests itself on a rural basketball court in suburban United States, on a makeshift football pitch in rural Malawi, or an informal cricket game in the parks of Hyderabad, sport brings people together in a way that few other social mechanisms can.  It unites a sense of connectivity in all of us, and it speaks a common language that brings out excitement and anticipation. 


Special Olympics is a global, grass roots movement dedicated to empowering the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through the convening power of sport.  We at Special Olympics see great potential in the selection in the 6th of April serving as a global call to action, not only for the sporting world, but for the whole world.  It calls attention to the rising momentum of the sport movement, recognizing the power that sport bring to individual lives and entire communities.  We at Special Olympics are energized by a Unified platform that places increased emphasis on the importance of playing together, eliminating the ‘us versus them’ mentality, and replacing it with a vision of no divisions and equal opportunity. 


Sport’s power to engender equality and unity is particularly important for people with intellectual disabilities, who remain the most marginalized population in the world (Emerson, 2008). People with intellectual disabilities and other disabilities are disproportionality represented on virtually every indicator of hardship and discrimination (Groce, 2011; Mitra, Posarac, & Vick 2011).  In medical institutions, people with intellectual disabilities are routinely denied care or given substandard treatment (Krahn, 2006; WHO, 2011).  In schools, the vast majority of people with intellectual disabilities are not allowed to attend and those who do are disproportionally bullied and isolated (AbilityPath.org, 2011; Yousif, 2008).  People with intellectual disabilities have a disproportionately high rate of physical and sexual abuse, much of which is not reported (Keilty & Connelly, 2001; Lund & Vaughn-Jensen, 2012), and are likely to be unemployed or underemployed (WHO, 2011). They also are likely to die more than 10 years before their peers (Heslop, Blair, Fleming, Hoghton, Marriott, & Russ 2013). 


Through the common language of sport, Special Olympics is able to bring critical services to this marginalized population.  With over 30 Olympic-type sports modules available, and with “nationally popular” sports as optional additions, Special Olympics engages over 4,000,000 people with intellectual disabilities from 170 nations in sport. Special Olympics provides a diverse set of services, opportunities, and activities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, in many cases in some of the most depressed settings.  This is true for not only the developing world, it remains very true in the developed world as well.  This is not an issue of economic development for a single nation but rather a global issue that strikes at the heart of global human and social development. By reaching people with intellectual disabilities through sport, Special Olympics contributes directly to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. For example, even in low income countries, Special Olympics promotes gender equality and empowers women by giving all people with intellectual disabilities an equal opportunity to play sports. Over 1.6 million of the 4 million Special Olympics athletes are female. Although this is not an even 50/50 split, these numbers are representative of the general population with intellectual disabilities.


In addition to the positive benefits, such as increased physical activity, from direct engagement in sports, Special Olympics uses the convening power of sport to offer other, important services to people with intellectual disabilities. Through its Healthy Athletes program, Special Olympics has provided 1.4 million free health screenings in 121 countries. Healthy Athletes also provides health education and referrals for follow-up care to Special Olympics athletes and has trained more than 120,000 health care professionals on how to work with this population. Healthy Athletes data results indicate that globally 37.3% of Special Olympics athletes screened have untreated tooth decay, 14.7% have mouth pain, 23.5% have never had an eye exam, 26.6% fail hearing screenings, 22.7% have low bone density, and 59.6% of adults are obese or overweight. By having health services at sport events, Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities one of the most basic human rights: the right to health. Specifically, Special Olympics also is addressing HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases through its new Healthy Communities initiative. Healthy Communities builds on Special Olympics’ existing health program but allows selected sites to focus on the most locally relevant health issues. Currently, Healthy Communities outside the U.S. are in Romania, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Malaysia, Peru, Mexico, Malawi, and South Africa. Special Olympics programs in these communities are addressing locally relevant health issues, such as HIV, by working with local partners to bring additional services to Healthy Athletes events and to make sure people with intellectual disabilities are included in community health services. Through a partnership with the Lions Club International Foundation, Special Olympics also offers family health education through family health forums, so we are able to reach beyond just the individuals with intellectual disabilities.


Special Olympics also uses sport to promote the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, educate people without disabilities, and reduce stigma. For example, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team and had over 618,000 participants in 2012. Research shows that Unified Sports breaks down barriers that exist between people with and without disabilities. People with and without intellectual disabilities report expanded opportunities for friendships with their teammates and improvements in existing friendships, with particularly robust changes for people with intellectual disabilities. Both groups also report more positive self-concept at the end of their Unified Sports experience, particularly in the area of social acceptance (Siperstein, Hardman, Wappett & Clary, 2001). Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports shows that having sport in common is one way that preconceptions and false ideas can be eliminated.   

Special Olympics recognizes and proves that sport is a primary vehicle from which to drive core messages of tolerance, celebration of differences, the importance of diversity, and the talents and gifts that all people bring to their communities - and to the world. It is a dynamic and innovative realization that many nations have witnessed first-hand. Lorna Bell, the National Director of Special Olympics Jamaica and former national tennis star described the power of Special Olympics in her community:


Special Olympics is a movement that has truly galvanized the country of Jamaica.  The athletes speak for themselves - their push for greatness, their never ending determination to prove themselves.  They have become a big part not only of our sports culture here, but of our community fabric.  They have become powerful agents of nation-building.  It is a good example of how 6 April 2014 can be celebrated – by highlighting how one of the most misunderstood and underserved populations in the world can be lifting all of us up out of our misconceptions and prejudices.  Our national Program here in Jamaica plans to celebrate this day, together with partners like UNICEF, Lions Clubs, Red Cross, Digicel, to highlight how these athletes work as if every tomorrow were 6 April.


The Special Olympics movement conducts over 70,000 competitions annually– averaging more than 190 competitions every day somewhere in the world.  From New Mexico to New Zealand, and from Jamaica to Java, sport remains the adhesive that connects our athletes with an awakening global community. The 6th of April represents a day when Special Olympics will celebrate the UN Day of Sport for Development and Peace.  It is also a day when Special Olympics will celebrate the grit, determination and courage of people with intellectual disabilities as they participate in 190 competitions around the world.  For Special Olympics, the 6th of April is every day of the year - inching the world ever closer to the full realization of human potential, unity, and dignity.  Special Olympics is the every day Movement.  The 6th of April provides a global platform for Special Olympics, and all stakeholders, to push for a world that makes the 6th of April every day of the calendar year. 



David Evangelista | DEvangelistaspecialolympics.org

Amy Shellard | ashellardspecialolympics.org

www.DEvangelistaspecialolympics.org (specialolympics.org)



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Heslop, P., Blair, P., Fleming, P., Hoghton, M., Marriott, A., & Russ, L. (2013). Confidential inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD), Final Report. Norah Fry Research Centre. Retrieved from http://www.bris.ac.uk/cipold/fullfinalreport.pdf


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