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Caribbean Countries Score Goal for Inclusive Health for People with Intellectual Disabilities

The Unified Football Cup, hosted by Special Olympics Jamaica on 4 November, brought together 300 athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.

During the cup, Special Olympics trained 19 health workers in the Caribbean on how to provide year-round quality care to people with intellectual disabilities in their home communities.

Representatives from UN agencies, Ministry of Health of Jamaica, health workers from the region, and Special Olympics Programs throughout the Caribbean participated in the Opening Ceremony, demonstrating the importance of sports and a health systems’ response to improve access to quality health for people with intellectual disabilities, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

By improving access to health care for people with ID in the Caribbean, health systems in the region move closer to achieving universal health coverage as recommended by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Strategy for Universal Access to Health and Universal Health Coverage.

On Sunday 4 November, Special Olympics Jamaica hosted a Unified Football Cup for athletes in Jamaica with and without intellectual disabilities (ID), and a Train the Trainer event for 19 health care professionals in the Caribbean region, including Aruba, Belize, Cayman Islands, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Opening Ceremony included Hon. Floyd Green, M.P., representing the Most Hon. Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, O.N., M.P.; United Nations Secretary General Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility Maria Soledad Cisternas submitted remarks via video; Dr. Anselm Hennis, Director of Non-Communicable Diseases, Disability and Mental Health, Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO Washington D.C.); Dr. Vitillius Holder, Regional Technical Director for the South Regional Health Authority representing the Ministry of Health, the Hon. Dr. Christopher Tufton, M.P.; Mark Ricketts, President, Jamaica Football Association; Mark Conolly, representative of UNICEF; Dane Richardson, Chief Executive Officer of the Digicel Foundation; Angela Ciccolo, representing the Chairman of Special Olympics International, Dr. Timothy P. Shriver; and Prof. Aldrick “Allie” McNab, Chairman of Special Olympics Jamaica.

Opening Ceremony remarks by the high ranking officials underscored the importance for health systems to provide access to quality health for people with ID in order to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and to achieve the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“These events provide people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to have a health checkup,” said Dr. Anselm Hennis of PAHO/WHO, adding, “we need to make sure that health services are able to meet the needs of people with disabilities and particularly people with intellectual disabilities. For this reason, we at PAHO are excited to be partnering with Special Olympics to improve access to health for people with intellectual disabilities throughout the region of the Americas.”

The partnership between Special Olympics and PAHO/WHO is the latest development in making health more inclusive for people with ID. Throughout the world, Special Olympics is partnering with providers, community organizations, businesses, and government agencies to break down barriers in health access and achieve health justice for all. The Special Olympics and PAHO/WHO partnership will increase momentum for inclusive health in the Americas and serve as an example for partnerships in regions around the world.

Hon. Floyd Green, M.P. said, “All individuals, whether able bodied or disabled, should be enabled to practice and participate in sports and enjoy all rights. When people with disabilities have access to support services, education, training, and job opportunities, we will enable them to lead gainful and meaningful lives.”

Maria Soledad Cisternas, United Nations Secretary General Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility, said via video message, “People with disabilities are within the framework of CRPD, which protects fundamental freedoms including dignity, autonomy, decision-making authority, independent living, equality of opportunities, non-discrimination, gender equality, and accessibility. In addition, disability is included in the Sustainable Development Goals, including healthy life, inclusive education, and gender equality.”

More than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2011 World Report on Disability. Despite 173 countries having ratified the CRPD, people with ID still face enormous stigma, discrimination, and exclusion, and they are often an invisible population whose worth is unknown to governments, influencers, and society at large.

While the Unified Football Cup matches played at Bred’s Sports Complex, health care professionals were being trained in the same facility in how to provide quality health care for people with intellectual disabilities.

“Sport is a bridge for people with intellectual disabilities to exercise other human rights, such as health, education, work, and social security,” Cisternas said.

“To be a great athlete, you must be a healthy athlete,” said Angela Ciccolo, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary of the Board of Special Olympics International, adding, “Despite severe need and higher health risks, people with intellectual disabilities are often denied health services. We are hosting the Unified Football Cup and Healthy Athletes Train the Trainer in Jamaica to break down barriers to health and change perceptions about people with intellectual disabilities.”

Special Olympics Health, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, improves access to health for people with intellectual disabilities. In 2015, the Golisano Foundation committed $25 million over five years to Special Olympics to make health more inclusive for people with intellectual disabilities around the world. This is the largest single gift by B. Thomas Golisano, the foundation’s founder. Golisano is an advocate for people with ID and their families, and the foundation that bears his name “is committed to opening doors, changing negative perceptions and stereotypes, and forging unprecedented partnerships to ensure that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have pathways to self-sufficiency, personal dignity, and the best possible expression of their abilities and talents throughout their lifetimes.” (Source) Access to quality health care helps open these pathways, enables people with ID to enjoy all the human rights afforded by the CRPD, and addresses health disparities faced by this historically marginalized population.

People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to die before age 50 than adults without intellectual disabilities. Globally, adults with intellectual disability are more than two times more likely to be obese compared to adults without intellectual disabilities. The majority of premature deaths for people with ID are due to a lack of health care access and utilization.

People with intellectual disabilities have lower rates of preventative health practices, such as dental hygiene, physical activity, preventative screening, and management of chronic conditions. People with ID also struggle to find doctors who have been trained and are willing to treat them.

Special Olympics Healthy Athletes data from around the world shows that 36% of people with ID have untreated tooth decay, 60% are more likely to be overweight or obese, 23% have never had an eye exam, and 38% are exposed to second hand smoke.

Also on Sunday, volunteers from the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Train the Trainers program screened 70 people with intellectual disabilities from St. Elizabeth Parish as part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, providing all competing athletes with free health screenings and education. Training health workers ensures people with ID have access to health care year-round in their home communities. Special Olympics has trained more than 220,000 health care professionals and students worldwide. These health care professionals report that they are more likely to seek out patients with ID.

For over 20 years, Special Olympics Health, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, has conducted more than 1.9 million free health screenings for athletes in over 135 countries in seven disciplines—podiatry, vision, dentistry, fitness, nutrition and healthy habits, audiology, and emotional well-being. The partnership between the Golisano Foundation and Special Olympics has also strengthened access to follow-up care for athletes in their own communities.

About Special Olympics

Special Olympics is a global inclusion movement using sport, health, education and leadership programs every day around the world to end discrimination against and empower people with intellectual disabilities. Founded in 1968, and celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 5 million athletes and Unified partners in more than 170 countries. With the support of more than 1 million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics delivers 32 Olympic-type sports and over 108,000 games and competitions throughout the year. Special Olympics is supported by individuals, foundations and partners, including the Christmas Records Trust, the Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics, The Coca-Cola Company, United Airlines, The Walt Disney Company and ESPN, Microsoft, Lions Clubs International, Bank of America, Essilor Vision Foundation, the Golisano Foundation, Safilo Group, and TOYOTA. Click here for a full list of partners. Engage with us on: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and our blog on Medium.

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Rebecca Simon
Director, Health Global External Affairs