Better than Sochi

Olympic procession at the Special Olympics event

ONE Fellow Michael Gerson recently returned from an event with Special Olympics and the Government of Malawi for the African Leaders Forum on Disability. A similar article was published by the Washington Post.

After driving a hour and a half from Lilongwe, Malawi, past vivid green fields of corn, we arrived at a small compound made of red mud bricks.  I was traveling with Tim Shriver, President of Special Olympics, to visit a young teen named Aaron with severe intellectual disabilities, caused by cerebral malaria. For seven years he had often been tied with a leash around his wrist to a stake in the courtyard, in order to keep him from wandering into the road.

This image of disability – a child on a leash – is horrible, but not atypical in parts of the developing world.  Social services are often limited or non-existent, while social stigma is heavy.  The words used to refer to people with intellectual disabilities are often translated as “the cursed” or “the abandoned of God.”  They are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse.  It is not uncommon for parents to keep children with intellectual disabilities permanently locked inside their homes, never to play with others or attend school.

Aaron is no longer leashed. He is receiving anticonvulsant medicines.  He sometimes goes to school. His parents have learned better ways to cope.

Photo caption: Aaron, in the pink jacket. 

Yet people with intellectual disabilities are the most vulnerable of the world’s vulnerable, and among the hardest for development efforts to reach. Most countries don’t even properly count them, making their needs all but invisible.  But those needs are very real, and deserve far more attention and resources from aid donors, foundations and countries themselves.

On my trip to Malawi, however, I also saw another, very different  image of people with intellectual disabilities.  I attended a Special Olympics event at a school in Lilongwe, in which children aged 2 to 7 marched on the field in Olympic style and scrambled over some simple obstacle courses. Abled and disabled children participated together, providing an experience of inclusion for both groups.  Intellectually disabled children, as usual, showed unsuspected abilities and enjoyed all the supportive attention.  The parents I talked to were proud of the physical and social progress their children had made.

Special Olympics, in partnership with the Lions Club, provides health services to children in the program.  But the largest contribution is the lifting of stigma.  People termed as “cursed” gain the title of “athlete.” They are not viewed the same way again – and do not view themselves the same way again.  It is the remarkable transformation that Special Olympics has brought to over 180 countries.  And seeing it at work in Malawi was far better than Sochi.

Read more about the African Leaders Forum on Disability here.