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Raising the Profile of Disability Inclusion at the 77th World Health Assembly

Every year, representatives from Ministries of Health around the world gather in Geneva, Switzerland for the World Health Assembly (WHA)—the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition to the official WHA proceedings at the prestigious Palais des Nations, the global health community capitalizes on this nexus of influencers and decision-makers to host numerous meetings and events to amplify important health issues.

On the sidelines of this year’s WHA, Special Olympics collaborated with a group of organizations—ATScale, Missing Billion Initiative, Reaching the Last Mile, McKinsey Health Institute, Clinton Health Access Initiative and London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine—on an event supported by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), titled "Disability Inclusive Health in Practice: Moving from Awareness to Action."

Anchored in the words of BMZ’s Dr. Katja Pohlmann, “Disability inclusion is not an act of charity, but a requirement for success,” the event brought together experts from various sectors with strong recommendations and best practices to drive health systems from inclusive policy to inclusive practices. Special Olympics Chief Health Officer, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, emphasized that “Policies are processes, not outcomes. While they are necessary, they are not sufficient to ensure that health equity is achieved. Often the things that are easiest to measure aren’t necessarily the most important."

The panel tackled a number of barriers faced by people with disabilities, the most pervasive of which was the stigma and attitudes of health care professionals. Dr. Israel Balogun, a medical doctor who also has lived experience of disability, reflected on the limited exposure to disability-related content during his medical training, as well as how both ignorance and attitudes accelerate the spread of disease and widening of disparities among people with disabilities. In contrast, motivating examples of the adoption of health care professional training modules and the training of community health workers in countries such as Indonesia and Kenya showed promise of provider training to not only improve the quality of care, but also impact rates of early detection and intervention for children with disabilities.

Ms. Tala Al Ramahi, from Reaching the Last Mile—which is an organization with a portfolio of global health programmes driven by the philanthropy of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—provided further evidence of how Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 served as a catalyst for helping recognize and start to address stigma in the UAE. As a result, an innovative model of training and care called Unified Healthcare was developed and has been widely deployed by Special Olympics UAE to individual health care providers, practices, clinics and large hospitals across the emirate, positively impacting provider competence and patient experiences.

Another key barrier that the panel tackled was financing mechanisms, many of which contradict or stifle the ability for progressive policies to be realized. Dr. Christakis emphasized that financial incentives (or disincentives) are a key driver. “Providing care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) is not equitably reimbursed. Rather than using financial incentives to promote equity, we are deploying them to promote inequity. How would the world be different if we inverted the financial model so that it was not patients with IDD trying to find doctors willing to see them out of beneficence, but doctors trying to find patients with disabilities, because caring for them was adequately remunerated?” Reimagining these financial models will ultimately generate improved health outcomes for people with disabilities but requires a significant commitment to shift the fiscal resources and the existing paradigm.

Along with Special Olympics’ Rosemary Collaboratory project, this event and collaboration forms part of Special Olympics’ sustained efforts to advocate for and support inclusive health reforms—changes that help foster conditions for persons with IDD to achieve their best possible health.

Group of people on stage
Special Olympics Chief Health Officer Dr. Dimitri Christakis participated on a panel alongside Dr. Katja Pohlmann, Head of Division, Global Health Policy, German Ministry for BMZ, Ms. Tala Ismail Al Ramahi, Chief Strategy Officer of Reaching the Last Mile, Ms. Nia Reviani, Assistant Deputy for Health Service Improvement, Ministry of Health of Indonesia, and Mari Tikkanen, Co-founder of the Missing Billion Initiative.

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