Persons with intellectual disabilities are the most marginalised in sport and have the lowest numbers of participation that the general population and in comparison with other types of impairments.
Usually when people talk about sports for persons with disabilities what comes to their mind is physical impairment or visually impaired sport events. Intellectual disability is not mental health case; it is a condition resulting from slow development usually occurring before the age of 18.
Because it’s not a sickness, it cannot be cured. Because it’s a developmental condition, it can improve and is very trainable. For some reasons persons with intellectual disabilities are not very much included in sports conversation and I don’t know if it is because their impairment is no visible or there could be some other reasons that I am not aware of. They have their own games called the Special Olympics which are managed by an organisation called Special Olympics International. It is a movement that provides sports training and competitions for children and adults with Intellectual Disabilities (ID).
Special Olympics accept all people with ID irrespective of the condition or level of disabilities from age 2 to 90 years. Those who are severe can be trained to do some form of games participation through motorised apparatus.
Due to its highly specialised nature, we currently don’t do it in Botswana because if it is not handled by professionals, more damage can be inflicted to the person.
Because of its agreement with International Olympic Committee, Special Olympics adopted 26 of the 32 Olympic sports codes. They do not have high impact and contact sports such as rugby.
Currently we have football (boys and girls), volleyball (boys and girls), swimming and track and field in the country. We also have unified team sport which is forming a team comprised by people with ID and those without OR people with ID playing against those without ID.
SO does not only focus on sports but holistic welfare for persons with intellectual disabilities. There is a program called “health athletes”. This is where they team up with diverse volunteer medical practitioners to examine the athletes during competitions.
These screenings are free to the athletes, parents and schools. They are performed through Special Olympics working relationships with the doctors
It is thus Special Olympics have the potential to bring liberation, to restore dignity and to develop skills.
If access to sport is constrained, inhibited or denied, the benefit of involved in it cannot be realised therefore I urge the parents and guardian to look for and enrol their children in an inclusive school near them and make sure that their child reap these benefits of sports.
We should move past the perception that children living with disabilities cannot do sport. Disability must not inhibit anyone who has the will and talent to do anything. Sports must be sports for anyone that can participate in sport and society should facilitate the participation in sports for persons with disabilities.
As I often say, there is no such thing as disabled people or people with disabilities because we are all different and we have different abilities. There is no one person who is capable of doing everything under the sun so why do we have to create a box for others.
I am looking forward to a new normal where there will be unlimited opportunities for persons with ID in sports, where we will have integrated sports clubs not just relying on schools and centres for persons with disabilities to provide the only platform for persons with disabilities to do sport.
Furthermore, at a government level we should not group athletes with disabilities but deal with them separately. We need to acknowledge persons with intellectual disabilities within the general population and set separate objectives for them than to just have a line item that say “athletes with disabilities” because that will result in misrepresenting others and we will find ourselves with data that is not comprehensive leading to the developing of other disability sports types and neglecting others unaware.
For example, we can say Botswana Games are inclusive, but auditing them, you will find that it is only visually impaired athletes who have been participating thus far and that means they are the only one getting development opportunities.