UNICEF and Special Olympics usher in new era of protection for children with disabilities
By Bob Coen
ATHENS, Greece, 27 June 2011 – As the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games once again buzzes with the spirit of competition, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake joined cheering athletes, family members and other supporters from around the world who are celebrating the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
The Games bring together more than 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 180 countries competing in 22 Olympic-type sports.
“These kids, more than any other kids, are stigmatized, they are excluded from schools, they are expelled from their families, they are vulnerable to trafficking of the most horrible kinds, they are denied the right to become productive members of their societies, which is a loss to the societies as well as the kids,” explained Mr. Lake as he watched the young athletes from the stands of Athens’ Olympic Stadium.
“Last night as we walked into the stadium, there was such a big crowd and the crowd was cheering, and the kids I was marching with, you could see their chests swelling,” he said.
Mr. Lake, who travelled to Athens to focus attention on issues relating to children with disabilities, participated in Saturday night’s Opening Ceremony of the Games, escorting the proud competitors of Special Olympics Vietnam in the Parade of Athletes. Legendary music star Stevie Wonder performed to the packed arena.
On Sunday, Mr. Lake talked with athletes including Sijida Khatun, 15, who represents India in volleyball. She is from a poor family in Calcutta. Like many children with intellectual disabilities, Sijida was institutionalized at a young age. “You should be very proud of yourself, because we are so proud of you,” Mr. Lake told Sijida, as they chatted and shared their love of sport on the lawn outside the stadium complex.
UNICEF is collaborating with partners like Special Olympics to promote equal opportunities for children with disabilities and help them reach their full potential. The global partnership with Special Olympics began in 2007 and currently features collaboration in 15 countries.
Together with other supporters and fans, including Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming, Mr. Lake also enjoyed a tour of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programme. The programme has provided more than one million Special Olympics athletes with free health screenings, education and care since it started some 10 years ago.
“We know that even though these athletes are travelling from all over the world to compete on the world stage, many of them will come to these games with significant health problems,” explained Darcie Mesereau, Vice President, Health Programs, Special Olympics International.
Children with disabilities are routinely denied equal access to health, education and social services. They are also often excluded from opportunities to participate in their families and communities, and are at higher risk of violence and abuse.
On Monday at a special ceremony, UNICEF and Special Olympics pledged to strengthen their global partnership. Together, Mr. Lake and Timothy P. Shriver, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics, committed their organizations to challenging negative attitudes about children with disabilities, and changing laws and policies that deny them equitable access to health, education and other social services.
Cherish all children
Mr. Shriver underscored the organizations’ commitment to achieve real results. “We sign an agreement with a voracious and relentless determination to make action out of the agreement. And we will have no satisfaction if in one year, or two years or three years we put this agreement on our walls and have nothing to show for it.”
Drawing on inspiration from the young Special Olympic athletes he had met, Mr. Lake added: “A world that cherishes every child is a better world for all children. That is what we’re working toward – and may we all be brave in the attempt to build that better world.”