special olympics
Rhoda Kaittany knew something more needed to be done to help her son. They lived in Nandi, a county in Kenya where children dealing with intellectual disabilities, including her child, lacked the resources to overcome their handicaps.

Working alone, she set out to organize everything required to bring a Special Olympics program to her county. During this process, she discovered children with intellectual disabilities growing up isolated from the world. In one case, a boy had been kept rope-tethered in a sheep’s pen to keep him from straying into danger.

Kenya’s situation is typical for poor countries. In fact, the majority of people dealing with developmental disabilities reside in developing countries. As Kaittany’s discoveries show, these people are often excluded from societies which lack the means to accommodate their special needs. The governments of developing countries are often too poor to devote the necessary social, health and educational resources to assisting the intellectually disabled. Moreover, few eligible families with disabled children receive government benefits in low-income countries. Lacking these resources, the disabled get stuck in poverty more often than those without disabilities.

Kaittany saw how desperate the problem had become in Kenya, one of the world’s poorest countries and home to an estimated 3.9 million people living with intellectual disabilities. She knew that the Special Olympics were part of the solution.

The Special Olympics is defined as a “global, grassroots movement dedicated to empowering the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.” The movement empowers lives first by promoting fitness through sports. A study conducted in The Netherlands found that children with intellectual disabilities tend to have less aerobic endurance and physical strength than other children. Since other research papers have suggested that improved physical fitness leads to improved cognitive and physical development in all children, it is imperative that the intellectually disabled find more opportunities to improve their fitness.

But the Special Olympics does more that just promote exercise. The organization provides health screenings, youth programs and public awareness campaigns for a population typically marginalized. It also believes in the potential of sports to educate in addition to promoting fitness. For example, in Botswana, the organization taught its athletes, who as a group were at a greater risk for contracting infectious diseases, about HIV/AIDS.

Globally, about 190 Special Olympics competitions take place every day—or 70,000 per year. The number is impressive, yet the movement strives to do more. The goal? Reach 200 million disabled people around the world through Special Olympics programs. For example, a relatively new program, the Global Football Initiative, is using the world’s most popular sport—soccer—to bring the organization closer to its goal. Through this program, Special Olympics athletes train with the support of professional clubs: the Italian Inter-Milan and the English Manchester United, for example.

So whether it is developing the bodies and minds of people living with disabilities or teaching communities how to help these individuals, the Special Olympics can play a crucial role in developing countries—as Rhoda Kaittany’s efforts have shown.

– Ryan Yanke


Sources: USAID, Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 1, Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 2, Special Olympics, World Bank, KAIH
Photo: Special Olympics