Sweden needs a more inclusive sports movement built around health

Fair and equal access to health care for those with intellectual disabilities is set to be a major focus of the 2021 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Sweden.
Logo for the Special Olympics World Winter Games Sweden 2021 accompanied by a photo of a skier in motion on the snow.

The 2021 World Winter Games will welcome 2,500 athletes from 100 countries to the iconic ski resort of Åre, with other sports taking place in nearby Östersund. The Games will run from the 2-12 of February in 2021, and are a key moment in ‘The Revolution Is Inclusion’ campaign—an all-out effort to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities (ID).

Key to ending discrimination and delivering a fully inclusive world is through improved healthcare for people with ID. In a show of how serious Sweden is about health for people with ID before, during, and after World Winter Games, on May 25 nine elected municipal officials and representatives of organizations penned an opinion piece outlining their ambitions for inclusive health.

The piece appeared on the influential Swedish news site, Dagens Samhälle, which targets decision makers in the Swedish public sector. It was published to coincide with the recent Swedish Sports Confederation’s bi-annual national meeting.

In it, the authors say the forthcoming Special Olympics World Winter Games offer a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to put a long term focus on how we in Sweden can promote better health for people with intellectual disabilities,’ emphasizing World Winter Games are a highlight in the urgent, sustained push for inclusive health.

According to research statistics referenced in the article, only 23% of junior high school and 18% of high school students with ID are active members of a sports club in Sweden. This compares with 47% and 34% respectively among the mainstream student population. On top of that, over 60% of the students in special education are physically inactive. The authors of the piece add, ‘which leads to a great public health problem—for no reason.’

The authors argue that initiatives to increase the number of athletes taking part in sports, and efforts to develop a more inclusive health system in Sweden, should be prioritized and not be viewed solely in terms of the investment required.

‘Efforts to increase the number of athletes with disabilities playing sports and achieve more inclusive public health is not a cost. It is a societal investment in an increased quality of life. People who are active in sports have better health, are more satisfied with their lives, and participate to a higher degree in education and the labour market.’

Two male athletes running on a snowy surface towards the camera in snowshoes.
Snowshoeing Race at the Special Olympics World Winter Games Austria 2017 in Ramsau am Dachstein on March 20, 2017 in Schladming, Austria.

‘There are studies showing that Swedish society over all saves up to 33,000 USD per year, if one person is active in sport. A designated campaign from the government on increasing the number of para-athletes within the whole of the Swedish sports movement is nothing but an investment that pretty much pays for itself,’ the authors argue. You can read the full article (in Swedish).

Health equity is a huge issue for people with ID around the world. Despite severe need and higher health risks, a United Kingdom study showed people with ID die on average 16 years earlier than the general population. Special Olympics is committed to changing this. Special Olympics and the Golisano Foundation are creating a world where people with ID have every opportunity to be healthy.

Special Olympics is a leader in creating inclusive health care—providing free health screenings to people with ID, educating healthcare professionals, and changing healthcare policies—and we have a long way to go to make inclusive health care mainstream. More health professionals, educators, policy makers, and private sector leaders like those in Sweden are required to make inclusive healthcare, curricula and policies the standard.

The people of Åre and Östersund have joined the “Revolution Is Inclusion” campaign and are sending a clear message about Special Olympics World Winter Games: investing in sports for people with ID is indivisible from public health, every day, around the world.

The upcoming Special Olympics World Winter Games promise to create a platform to showcase how access to sport and an inclusive health system, where those with intellectual disabilities can take full advantage of the same health programmes and services available to the mainstream, can deliver dividends across society.