Special Olympics champions the cause of children with intellectual disabilities

Janet Froetscher, Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics, explains why sports participation can play a key role in ending stigma and focusing on the talents of children with intellectual disabilities.

Children at LEA Primary School in Lilongwe, Malawi. Picture:  Fernando Cambeiro

The statistics tell only part of the story.

While it is true that children with intellectual disabilities (ID) face insurmountable barriers to primary and secondary education throughout the developing world, statistics alone fail to capture the full opportunity lost – and speak only partially to the damaging legacy left behind.

Children with ID remain one of the most marginalised disability subsets in the world today, with systemic marginalisation that has created a cycle of poverty and exclusion only now coming to light. 

The World Report on Disability, a joint publication by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, highlights this bidirectional relationship that poverty and disability share, adding that “a lack of legislation, policy, targets and plans tend to be the major obstacles in efforts to provide Education for All.”  (World Report on Disability, page 214). 

Similar publications, such as the 2013 UNICEF State of the World’s Children report, speaks clearly to the many challenges faced by children with disabilities to access primary education. 

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has underscored the need for inclusive education in an effort to not only advance educational and academic indicators, but also has highlighted how inclusive education promotes greater social development through understanding of differences. It is also the most cost-effective for national governments, thereby eliminating the need for “special education units”, which places additional fiscal strains on governments for both training and infrastructure alike.

As part of this push for inclusive education for all, Special Olympics stands as a global leader in promoting the social and emotional learning of all children, not only with children with ID but, in fact, through this misunderstood population. Through the use of innovative tools like student-led advocacy campaigns, inclusive sports participation opportunities and mentoring, students with ID are positioned as agents of innovation and knowledge transfer, rather than simply students that represent “special needs.” 

The Special Olympics Unified Sports program, a key Development through Sport tool that brings youth with and without ID together on the field of play, has scientifically demonstrated how youth attitudes can be changed to better reflect the talents and abilities of those with ID, thereby transcending the playing field and entering the classroom.  The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, a student-led advocacy campaign to eliminate the use of derogatory terms aimed at children with ID, has proven to activate millions of students both in the United States as well as countries like India, Australia, Lebanon and more. 

The barriers to education facing children with ID, namely in the developing world, are many. National policies must mandate inclusive education, as well as specialised teacher training, so that national policies can be brought to national practice. 

Infrastructure and accessibility must be improved, in alignment with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), to make schooling within reach of this marginalised population. Increased funding for teacher training is critical to ensure that once accessibility is achieved, it is coupled with quality educational services rendered to those on the margins.

Most importantly, however, is the need for governments, together with the global development community, to fight stigma. 

Myths, misinformation and damaging traditional beliefs continue to keep individuals with ID entrenched in a stigmatised existence that hinders not only their social and human development, but that of their families, their communities and their nations. 

Children with ID are one of the world’s most untapped resources that could become a major component to a post 2015 Millennium Development Goal framework toward full inclusive development. 

Special Olympics is ready to play a role in making the field of play a part of the classroom experience. 

Victory depends on others joining this fight.


You can learn more about how to create A World at School for children with disabilities and The Special Olympics’ approach on our Google Hangout on Monday, February 23 at 11am EST/4pm UK.

David Evangelista from The Special Olympics will be joined by panellists Chernor Bah of A World at School, Rolando Villamero Jr. of the Youth Advocacy Group and Leonard Cheshire Disability.

Please click here to sign up and register.