Early childhood development (ECD) interventions are critical to helping children survive and thrive. In particular, according to the WHO, children with disabilities and developmental difficulties need nurturing care just as much as any other child, if not more, to reach their full potential.
From 2014-2017, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Special Olympics implemented an ECD initiative to support 365 children with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers in Nairobi, Kenya. The Intellectual Disability Empowerment Agenda (IDEA) was the first of its kind to combine ECD services with the Special Olympics Young Athletes Model. This model introduces basic sport skills, like running, kicking and throwing for children with and without intellectual disabilities.
IDEA engaged community health volunteers, social workers, physiotherapists, Special Olympics staff and Athlete Leaders to build the social, physical, and cognitive skills of children through therapeutic play activities. Weekly sessions at ECD centers and monthly home visits helped caregivers of children with intellectual disabilities learn parenting, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation skills to aid their child’s development. These efforts improved caregiver-child relationships, highlighted the potential of the child, and enabled children to experience the joy of playing with their peers for the first time.
IDEA’s eight Athlete Leaders played a key role in the success of the project. They provided additional support to children and their families on positive parenting, health education, discipline techniques, toy-making, and social skills. Athlete Leaders also modeled positive play relationships between caregiver and child.
After a year of working with IDEA, Catholic Relief Services asked the Athlete Leaders to reflect on how their involvement in this project made a difference. They shared how their inclusion and support gave families hope, motivated parents to be consistent in how they support their children, taught parents to explore children’s talents, and exercised positive parenting and discipline in a non-physical manner. These were all steps forward. Special Olympics staff added that children also responded more positively to instruction from Athlete Leaders than their parents. Athlete Leaders themselves experienced benefits, too. They reported improved relationships with their own families. All gained employment and a sense of meaningful engagement, dignity, and fulfillment.
Adults with intellectual disabilities, like Special Olympics Athlete Leaders in Kenya, have valuable life skills and perspectives that can benefit public health interventions. They are critical, untapped change agents for community development, already trained by Special Olympics with the leadership and communication skills they need to play a key supporting role. Athlete Leaders serve as positive examples for project participants while also showing others without disabilities the necessary insight to design and improve interventions to overcome participation barriers commonly experienced by people with intellectual disabilities and their families.
For us, the IDEA project in Kenya has become a powerful demonstration of Special Olympics’ Inclusion Revolution. Involving Athlete Leaders and others with disabilities in this fashion can be a game changer, for we must give vulnerable and marginalized individuals a seat at the table and empower them to be co-creators of the solution.