Special Olympics: changing the game

Red dust clouds rose and fell as the young footballers tussled for the ball on the parched field of Loresho Primary school outside Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “Bluuuuue!” “Yelllllloooooow!” A thousand school children clad in tracksuits danced and bellowed their support from the chalk sidelines despite the harsh African sun. Passersby peered in, intrigued by the match and tent full of esteemed spectators including Her Excellency, First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta

What was unfolding on that football pitch, and thousands of pitches, courts, turfs and tracks around the world every day is the epitome of sport’s ability to unite communities and countries: Unified Sports. Unified Sports teams are comprised of equal numbers of individuals with and without intellectual disabilities and provide a highly effective means for youth to appreciate and support each other’s talents and abilities, rather than focusing on their disabilities. These two teams featured athletes from Special Olympics Kenya as well as local Leos, young service-oriented leaders from the youth network of Lions Clubs International. Together, Lions Clubs International and Special Olympics have teamed up in over 30 countries to bring inclusive sports opportunities like this to youth under the banner of a partnership title “Mission: Inclusion.”

But sport is just one of the many ways in which Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International have collaborated over the past 18 years. Together these two renowned organizations have provided quality vision care and screening to 410,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities. The initiative has also restored sight to many of those with cataracts and shared valuable health information with countless families of those with intellectual disabilities.

Fifteen new Special Olympics Champions Lions Clubs, which include individuals with disabilities, have also been established and have worked together to bring the joy of sports competitions and quality health care to tens of thousands of individuals with intellectual disabilities in over 100 countries. Lions Clubs International has recently taken on diabetes as a new global cause and, recognizing that people with intellectual disabilities are two to three times more likely to develop diabetes, are exploring ways in which Lions and Leos may help to educate, screen and care for those impacted by this disease.

This long-standing partnership was acknowledged by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta when she commended Lions Clubs International for the on-going support that they have provided to Special Olympics and the significant impact that it has had on restoring sight to six athletes in Kenya. “With your invaluable work, you have not only provided access to life-changing corrective surgeries and saving sight, but provided them with confidence and determination to pursue a future in sports,” said the First Lady.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities are consistently the most marginalized subset of all populations and have some of the lowest access rates to education, quality health care, employment and even sports. Special Olympics is working hard to change that, and, through collaboration with organizations such as Lions Clubs International, are able to ensure that sport is their entry point to a world in which doors are opened to health facilities, schools and even service organizations.

The Lions Clubs International youth network, Leos, are playing a significant role in changing this reality and empowering youth with disabilities. Through their innovation, vision and enthusiasm, Leos are helping to change the narrative on disability, and are charting a new social dialogue on the role that youth play in transforming their communities- for youth of all abilities.

The game drew to a close and the young fans stormed the field to congratulate their teams as they made their way to the podium to receive their medals. Yellow and blue alike, glistening with sweat and hugging each other – celebrating a good game of football between friends. The First Lady congratulated both teams and awarded the gold medals to the winners, expressing her delight at what she had just witnessed on the field. “I am convinced that sports is an important vehicle that will provide our youth with a positive competitive spirit, determination and courage to overcome social barriers that have restricted inclusive participation for so long – because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices or stereotypes. Sports has a unique ability to transcend across economic, physical and social cultural barriers,” she said.

And she is right of course. Because in the space of just 40 minutes, one of the most persistent and unjustified forms of exclusion had been overcome by fourteen Kenyan youth with a football on a red, dusty field.

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