These words spoken by Nelson Mandela ring true for communities and nations around the world, but for persons with intellectual disabilities, sport is been a particularly powerful platform that has continuously and positively transformed their lives for the better. Special Olympics, a global sports organization dedicated to empowering athletes with intellectual disabilities through grassroots programming, has helped lead this transformation for over a half century. This movement uses sport not only to change attitudes, but as a tool for development in areas of inclusive education, health, early childhood development, family support, leadership training, safeguarding, and much more.
On 6 October 2021, Special Olympics convened its first-ever Special Olympics Caribbean Sports Ministers Forum, bringing together Ministers of Sport, Special Olympics organizational leaders, Olympic Committee leaders, sports celebrities, media, civil society stakeholders and Special Olympics athletes to usher in a new platform of sustained positive change for this marginalized community. “We cannot continue to pay lip service to these athletes,” said Brian Lewis, President of the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees (CANOC) and President of the Trinidad and Tobago National Olympic Committee. “For too long, this group has been on the sidelines—it’s time we all come together to give athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunities they deserve.”
Mrs. Lorna Bell, Executive Director of Special Olympics across the Caribbean, made a particular call to action to the Ministers of Sport: “My Caribbean Sports Ministers, the athletes of Special Olympics need your support. They need your presence. They too can bring pride to our nations. We have seen the work of Special Olympics change the lives of so many, but there is so much work to be done—and this is what can happen by working together.”
The Special Olympics Caribbean Sports Ministers Forum also welcomed NBA great Sam Perkins from the LA Lakers, who offered his steadfast support to the effort. “It is an honor for me to serve as not only a former Board member, but now a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics. I was always encouraged to ‘give back’, and there could be no greater organization for me to support than the athletes of Special Olympics.” Sam Perkins continued, “I played at the highest levels of the NBA, and I can say that the athletes of Special Olympics embody the same grit, the same discipline, and the same dreams as any other athletes.”
The Forum was honored to welcome a range of Ministers of Sport from throughout the Caribbean, including Honorable Eric Evelyn (Minister of Culture, Youth, Sports and Community Development in the Nevis Island Administration), Honorable Roselyn Paul (Minister for Sports, Culture and Community Development, Dominica), Honorable, Minister Olivia Grange (Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Jamaica), Honorable Daryll Matthew (Minister of Sports, Culture, National Festivals and the Arts, Antigua and Barbuda), Dr. Rodolphe Samuel (Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Sint Maarten), Honorable Jonel Powell (Minister of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture, St. Kitts and Nevis), Kelvin Koniki (Director of Sports, Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, Suriname), and Harry Mephon PhD (Directeur de la Culture et des Sports, Guadeloupe). In particular, the Honorable Minister Grange from the Republic of Jamaica and the Honorable Minister Sutherland from Barbados both offered strong statements of support. “The athletes of Special Olympics Jamaica bring tremendous pride to our nation, and we salute their performance both on and off the field,” said Minister Grange. “In Jamaica, sport is for all—regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic setting, and the like. We stand in firm and full support with Special Olympics Jamaica—not only the Ministry of Sport but the entire national government.”
Minister Sutherland from Barbados added, “We Ministers of Sport from across the Caribbean can make a solid contribution to this population, and united, we can do even more. The government of Barbados looks forward to supporting further still the athletes of Special Olympics, and we look forward to participating in more Forums of this type.”
The Forum concluded with an emotional call to action by Kester Edwards, a former Special Olympics Trinidad and Tobago athlete and currently a leading athlete sport development official for Special Olympics International. “I’m an example of what Special Olympics can do for individuals with intellectual disabilities,” Edwards said. “I suffered a brain injury when I was a little boy and Special Olympics was there for me when little else was. Like John Lennon sang decades ago: ‘You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. There are over 6,000,000 athletes of Special Olympics with dreams. We can help them realize each one of them.”
Special Olympics is currently planning additional Forums to mobilize support for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Caribbean, and remains steadfast in their support of using sport to promote empowerment and inclusive development for all.