Special Olympics: How Sports is promoting Inclusion and empowering athletes with intellectual disabilities

Author: George Ernest Asare
Through sports, athletes with disability are being empowered
Through sports, athletes with disability are being empowered

Yesterday marked World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD), a global awareness day officially observed by the United Nations since 2012 to raise global awareness of the condition.

In commemoration of the day, the Graphic Sports looks at how Special Olympics is empowering athletes living with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Isaac Quansah Otchere stretched his hands and smiled broadly moments after he saw me at the entrance of Dzorwulu Special School in Accra. His facial expression proved that he was elated to see me and I returned the compliment with a smile as he welcomed me with a handshake.

His first words confirmed what I already knew before meeting him.  “Boss, I am now  in full time employment here so I am very busy and hardly visit my parents at  Kasoa,” he said heartily. I played along by congratulating him as if I was hearing the good news for the first time that he was working for a school which had now become a home. Otchere was an employee and a member of a larger family of persons with intellectual disability, a group comprising persons suffering from impairments such as Autism and Down Syndrome.

It was in 2015 that I first met Isaac. He was part of Ghana’s Intellectually Disabled Athletes that participated in the Special Olympics  World Games in Los Angeles, USA.

Victoria Obeng, Princess Aryin and Mohammed Toffiq were the other members who, after the games, returned home with four silver medals .
Otchere, currently the captain of Ghana’s Intellectually Disabled team (Special Olympics Ghana), still has fond memories of the tournament which, he said, turned his life around.

“I started participating in Special Olympics World Games in 2015 and it was our Headmistress, Madam Veronica Sackey, who introduced me to it. She told me about Special Olympics Ghana and their commitment to unearth the sports potentials of the Intellectually Disabled, so I joined.“

“I was fortunate to be part of the four athletes who participated in  the Los Angeles games and, together with my colleagues, we brought home four silver medals . I won silver in the 100 metres. I also won silver in the dance competition, while Princess won silver in the 100 metres and 200 metres events. And since then, I have been to the United Arab Emirates and  Egypt for competitions,” he said.

To Isaac, Special Olympics Ghana had exposed him to many countries where he interacted with high profile personalities, such as the Liberia President, George Weah, and Ivorian football legend, Didier Drogba, an experience which had given him a sense of pride and social inclusion.

Like Isaac and his teammates who live with impairments like Down Syndrome, Special Olympics Ghana provides them a sense of belonging and helps them to integrate into society.

“There is much talent in people with disabilities,  so it is wrong for society to disparage, isolate and discriminate against them when sharing national resources”

Expressing concern about their plight, he noted: “Africans should change their mindset towards people with disabilities.

“In each of the tournament we participated in, we raised the flag of Ghana very high because we always returned home with medals. Unfortunately, the state always neglect us but is quick to splash much money on national teams who participate in similar tournaments but return home empty handed,” he bemoaned.

Nana Wereko Ampim-Opoku, a board member of Special Olympics Ghana, which is the body charged with managing athletes with IntellectualDisabilities, said their prime key mandate was to unearth the sports potentials of children living with intellectual disabilities and organise sports programmes for them.

Special Olympics Ghana board targets children living with intellectual disabilities in special schools and those in communities and expose them to various sporting disciplines to develop their sports potentials and integrating them into society.

Some of these children, who before Special Olympics felt they were not part of society and felt rejected with no love because of their peculiar conditions, now feel so much accepted and loved,” explains Nana Ampim-Opoku.

“They are happy and ready to lead normal lifestyles like any able person . This is how Special Olympics has transformed them.”

The global organisation, Special Olympics, serves more than four million athletes with intellectual disabilities working with hundreds of thousands of volunteers and coaches each year. Since the establishment of Special Olympics in 1968, the number of people with and without intellectual disabilities who are involved with the organisation has been growing.

Special Olympics offers 30-plus Olympic-style individual and team sports that provide meaningful training and competition opportunities for persons with intellectual disabilities. About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way.

Through aligning with the mission of its global body, Special Olympics Ghana, through organisation of competitions locally and grooming athletes for international events, has succeeded in breaking down barriers for athletes with Down Syndrome or other forms of intellectual disabilities, which in turn is reducing stereotyping of such persons who are integrating into society better.

For Ms Phyllis Dilys Biney, the National Director of Special Olympics Ghana, sports has transformed persons living with intellectual disabilities and helped them to be disciplined in many ways.

“There has been much improvement in their lives, especially those who engage in sports . They are more enlightened than before, and their frequent interactions with society have built their confidence,” she confirms.

“Parents who isolated their children have become more accommodating and eager to visit them in school  to find out about the next sporting events. So, Special Olympics has not only helped  the individual child, but has also transcended into their families”.

“The future looks bright for the children with these conditions but much also depends on state support for them.They need much training to increase their time,and participate in other sports.

Children with intellectual disabilities have an in-built talents that need to be taped. Through sports we have trained athletes to be leaders  for them to  speak as health ambassadors, so they can educate their peers and transform their lives for the better”.