Participating in sports – through both training and competition – promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being. Special Olympics not only provides the opportunity for individuals with intellectual disabilities to realize these benefits, but promotes dignity, respect, and the opportunity for fuller social inclusion.
Over the past several days, I’ve been fortunate to join more than 2,300 athletes and their coaches from over 110 countries in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, for the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. The Games, which include competition in events such as skiing, skating, snowboarding, and floor hockey, is also a celebration of the spirit of the Special Olympics.
I have had the privilege to meet athletes and their families from towns and cities across the United States, as well as athletes from Morocco, New Zealand, Egypt, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and of course Korea.
One athlete here in Korea is Chase from Salt Lake City. Chase, from the day he was born, wanted to play sports, yearned to achieve and excel in sports. But the community programs just didn’t cut it for him. According to his mom, with Special Olympics, his whole life changed. He has far exceeded her expectations and truly is a “rock star,” she said.
Vivienne from Montana is also representing the United States during the Games. Vivienne’s parents set the bar high for their daughter. The phrase “can’t” was simply not acceptable. As the Olympic torch made its way toward Yongpyong Dome for the Games’ opening ceremonies, Vivienne was there to carry the torch on one of the final legs of the flame’s journey.
While sports provide great benefits, Special Olympics is much more. Special Olympics’ Project UNIFY supports schools in becoming more inclusive to those with disabilities through athletics and other activities. The U.S. Department of Education reinforced this mission last week with new guidance clarifying a school’s existing obligations to provide students with disabilities opportunities to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs.
Here in Korea, thousands of athletes, families, students, educators, advocates, and politicians convened to do more than just play sports. It’s a call to action.
It’s estimated that there are approximately 200 million people with intellectual disabilities globally – and too many of them experience poverty and exclusion.
World leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma and President Joyce Banda from Malawi, addressed barriers and social hurdles people with intellectual disabilities face, and importantly, solutions to end the cycle of poverty and exclusion that they and their families face.
During the Global Youth Summit that accompanied the Games, we learned about the latest developments in innovative sports programming for young children with intellectual disabilities ages 2-7, helping these children strengthen physical development and self-esteem. I am truly inspired by the young people from around the world, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are committed to inclusion and acceptance in schools and communities.
The Summit provided youth with opportunities to acquire and enhance leadership and advocacy skills for themselves, their peers, their schools, and their communities. The summit also included a rally with over 900 young people from Korea and around the world celebrating Special Olympic athletes, and children with and without disabilities around the world.
In a moving speech during the Summit, Rahma Aly, a Special Olympics athlete from Egypt, summed up the spirit of the games and the mission of the Special Olympics. “Love, understanding, believing and willing to accept others, no matter how different they are is my message,” Aly said. “Don’t consider us different, we are part of this society, we can help, participate and succeed.”
Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services