Special Olympics Brings Children with Disabilities to the Forefront

Photo credit: Special Olympics

December 3, 2023 – On December 3 each year, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is celebrated. This international day was established by the United Nations in 1992 “to promote an understanding of disability issues and to mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.”

This year, David S. Evangelista, Regional President and Managing Director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia and Senior Advisor for International Development of Special Olympics, Inc., spoke to the Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN) about the importance of early interventions for children with disabilities.

For over 50 years, Special Olympics has been driven by a passion to fight the inactivity, stigma, and isolation faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In the 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded a summer camp for people with IDD because she wanted her sister Rosemary to be treated equally and was committed to fighting injustice. Inspired by the movement’s founder, Special Olympics is committed to ending discrimination against people with IDD by offering comprehensive sports training and competitions; a range of health, education, and leadership development; and family support programming. Today, more than 4 million athletes and Unified Sports partners in over 177 countries benefit from this year-round programming and have found joy, confidence, and fulfillment on the playing field and in life. They also inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential.

Question: How does Special Olympics play a role in promoting inclusivity and empowerment for children with IDD?

Evangelista: Special Olympics believes in the potential of people with IDD and the value they bring to their families and their communities. While traditional Special Olympics programming starts at age 8, the Special Olympics Young Athletes program provides an opportunity for children with and without IDD to play and grow together through developmental play activities. The program provides children of all abilities with the same opportunities to advance in core developmental milestones. Children learn how to play with others and develop important skills for learning and playing. Inclusion is key at an early age to ensure all children grow up with positive associations and attitudes toward people with IDD and can learn from and model after their peers. Inclusive programming also provides opportunities for parents, families, educators, and community members to see children learn, play, and develop in an inclusive environment and to see the potential for people with IDD in the future. For genuine and lasting change to occur, the community must emphasize the inclusion and acceptance of people with IDD.

Asian girl child in a gym sitting on a ball
Photo credit: Special Olympics

Question: What initiatives can be implemented and are being implemented to ensure that these children have equal access to sports and recreational activities, fostering their physical and emotional well-being?

Evangelista: Special Olympics offers Young Athletes programming around the world. Young Athletes is an inclusive early childhood motor-play program for children aged 2 to 7 years with and without IDD. It introduces basic athletic skills such as running, kicking, and throwing and offers families, teachers, caregivers, and people from the community the chance to share the joy of sports with all children.

The Young Athletes program delivers direct, early childhood intervention through inclusive activities that strengthen developmental skills. Incorporating motor skills activities into a child’s early environment is key to helping children maximize their potential in all developmental areas and improving cognitive and social skills, attention, working memory, mental health, and academic achievement. Young Athletes programming takes place in homes, schools, and communities, led by families, teachers, and volunteers supported by Special Olympics training and resources. 

Young Athletes follows standardized lessons corresponding to foundational skills developed through interactive play. After two months of participation, children with IDD gained seven months in the advancement of motor skills and showed consideration improvement in communication, daily living, social skills, and behaviors. Additionally, family members reported significantly positive changes in both their own attitudes and those of community members toward their child with IDD. By addressing both the developmental and attitudinal challenges faced by children with IDD and their families, Young Athletes illustrates the impact of early interventions on health and development outcomes for children with IDD.

Question: How does the recognition of the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities help raise awareness and inclusivity for children with IDD in Special Olympics programs?

Evangelista: Special Olympics is empowered by the focus on inclusion and seeing the value for every child on this Day of Persons with Disabilities. Children with IDD are often kept in the shadows and excluded from early childhood education, health, and community services, which can lead to delayed development, ongoing health issues, and continued exclusion in the community. Bringing children with IDD to the forefront can help ensure these children have equitable access to quality child care, health, nutrition, protection, and early learning services.

Question: How can parents and caregivers support their child’s involvement in Special Olympics?

Evangelista: Parents and caregivers play a critical role in supporting a child’s development and access to services. Special Olympics provides support to guide families from the time of their child’s diagnosis throughout early childhood. While children play and learn in Young Athletes, parents and caregivers receive education, encouragement, and resources to advocate for the child’s health. They learn how to implement activities to support childhood development at home, while also learning how to advocate for children with IDD and the rights of those children to equitable primary care and community services. These trainings provide families with the coaching and support needed to gain confidence and skills not only to make their own voices heard for their families but also to inspire other families into action. 

African boy child doing high jump
Photo credit: Special Olympics

Question: Can you briefly provide examples of success stories or achievements of those children who have participated in Special Olympics?

Evangelista: With programming efforts around the world, Special Olympics Young Athletes has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, supporting their development and creating opportunities for inclusion and acceptance in their future. For example, when Kong from Thailand had not said a word by 3 years old, his parents learned he had an intellectual disability and struggled to find resources to support him. Left with his older sister and grandparents while his parents worked in the city, Kong spent much of his early years alone, bouncing from side to side in front of a TV, unable to sit still or communicate. In 2017, Kong’s sister discovered Special Olympics Young Athletes, which taught Kong games and activities to develop motor and social cognitive skills. By playing at home with his family and with teachers at the local special education center, Kong was able to focus, socialize with his peers, and develop foundational motor skills to prepare him for sports. With these skills, he moved on to a special education primary school where he was successful in school and sports. Through the school, he enrolled in Special Olympics sports and began competing locally in bocce. Kong’s transformational journey from isolation to triumphant athlete demonstrates the importance of early support and proves that transformation is possible through relentless determination and community support. 

Question: What are some specific sports and activities offered by Special Olympics for children with disabilities?

Evangelista: Special Olympics offers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and hosts over 40,000 games and competitions each year for people with IDD over the age of 8. Special Olympics also offers Unified Sports programming, which pairs people with and without IDD together on the same playing field to break down barriers and stereotypes through the power of play. In addition to sports and Young Athletes programming, Special Olympics offers inclusive developmental sports programming for 6- to 12-year-olds to build on the foundational skills learned in Young Athletes and provides age and developmentally appropriate sports training to support the transition into competitive sports.  

ECDAN would like to thank Special Olympics for removing barriers and helping children with IDD and their families discover new strength, confidence, and freedom.