How sport can end discrimination of people with intellectual disabilities

Mary Davies, managing director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, outlines the aims and ambitions of the Special Olympics movement.


special-olympics-logoThe thrill and excitement of sport is unique—and it should be available to everyone. In Special Olympics we promote sport as a vehicle for ending discrimination and stigma of people with intellectual disabilities—of whom there are more than 200 million people in the world. Sadly, a majority face a life of prejudice and discrimination, loneliness and limitation. Our number-one challenge in Special Olympics is to end that. For our mission to succeed, we have to be able to do two things. First, we must reach out to people with intellectual disabilities and their families and welcome them onto the field of sport. Secondly, we must be able to communicate the message of their abilities as a way of overturning stigma and prejudice. If we don’t do both, we’re not successful.

The way in which we create the sporting activities is one whole strand; the way in which we communicate and engage the public and the community in owning that relationship and owning that idea leads us into the world of social, community and political change.
People say sport is good for health, for confidence, for teamwork—and this is all so true. But we have a slightly sharper edge. We are confronting a massive social problem. It’s not just about teamwork and confidence. That’s nice and it’s good. But this is about the world’s oldest prejudice—against people who have a greater challenge learning and participating.

Access to and participation in sport and physical education provide an opportunity to experience social inclusion for people otherwise marginalised by social, cultural or religious barriers caused by disability, gender or other forms of discrimination. Through sport, our athletes experience equality, freedom and a dignifying means for empowerment. Sport is a unique life-changing vehicle for this population because they have so many challenges with traditional educational environments and traditional pathways to full inclusion. Sport becomes an alternative that is almost unique in their lives.

Special Olympics

Special Olympics brings together more than 4 million people with intellectual disabilities across 175 countries. Special Olympics is not just about big sporting events; we provide year-round training and competition opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities in 32 different sports. We are a global movement dedicated to bringing tolerance and acceptance for all people with intellectual disabilities. In Ireland our 11,000 athletes are celebrated and admired; sadly this is not the case in every corner of the world. I work across 58 countries and stigma and discrimination of people with intellectual disabilities is common in many of them. Many still struggle for the opportunity to be integrated into society and in their communities, and even to receive proper medical care. They face discrimination, stigma and abuse that deny them their most basic human rights to health, education, and sometimes life itself-
We don’t just support athletes, but their families too. The Special Olympics Family Support Programme recognises the isolation and exclusion that can be felt by family members and carers of people with an intellectual disability and drives to alleviate it. Families give their time willingly with no personal reward beyond the fulfilment that comes from giving and contributing to other family members.

Public health

In the area of public health, Special Olympics is the world’s largest organisation working to address the persistent disparities in access to quality health care services for people with intellectual disabilities. We do this through our Healthy Athlete Programme. Last year alone, more than 13,000 volunteer healthcare professionals gave of their time and expertise to conduct 765 health screening clinics worldwide for our athletes. In many cases this screening provides an opportunity for athletes to see a doctor for the very first time. And in some cases the lives of our athletes have been saved through the detection and treatment of medical ailments the athletes and their families didn’t even know they had.


We promote volunteerism across borders—and of all ages—reinforcing active citizenship at a local and European level. Without the generosity of thousands of volunteers, Special Olympics would not exist. In Ireland alone, 24,000 volunteers support the Special Olympics programme. Through our volunteers, we empower our athletes and provide an outlet for friendship and social development.

Athlete leadership programme

Off the playing field, we encourage our athletes to be leaders in their communities, in their schools and in their work places. We do this through our Athlete Leadership Programme which empowers athletes to develop leadership skills, to be advocates and to be fully integrated members of their community.

The oath which every Special Olympics athlete takes is ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ The common word is, of course, LET. December will again mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, so let us not forget the core tenants of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They represent the most fundamental rights of all persons regardless of ability level: the right to healthcare services, the right to education, the right to an environment safe from exploitation and abuse, the right to sports activities, and (most importantly) the right to be included as an equal member of society.

Sport is a powerful vehicle. Special Olympics athletes show their strengths and abilities through their participation. Each athlete has a different story, but each story has much in common. From the athletics track to the football field to the bowling alley to the basketball court, our athletes show their courage and the results of all their training and hard work.

Special Olympics is thriving proof of the commonality of the human spirit—that colour, creed, ability and background are irrelevant in the pursuit of a shared goal. Every day acts of inclusion have helped define our social fabric, where tolerance, acceptance, togetherness, helpfulness and advocacy have all become standard components of a past, present and future Europe.

Mary Davis
Mary Davis

Special Olympics inspires people in Europe and across the world to think beyond the normal bounds of possibility. People with intellectual disabilities are empowered to achieve their dreams and family members see loved ones grow in self-confidence and self-worth. With each athlete’s experience, there comes a lasting legacy of attitudes changed and an ability to welcome and accept that which is different. The activities and programmes simply say to all, that people with an intellectual disability are real people, and rounded people. Yes, they need specific supports, but they have the same expectations, hopes and abilities as everyone else—tthe desire to contribute, participate, form relationships and friendships, and compete on the sports field. The power of sport is the vehicle that changes the lives of our athletes over and over again.


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