Enhancing the potential of persons with intellectual disabilities through sports

In Summary
  • UNFPA, Special Olympics Kenya, Lions Clubs International using the power of inclusive sports to help girls with intellectual disabilities find their place at the table of global dialogue and decisions
  • Grassroots sports and physical activity represent one of the strongest, and currently only, mechanisms to combat this marginalisation.

Sports is a powerful tool for the promotion of inclusion and the development of a positive self -image among the youth. For Shalel Tennah, marching into the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi where she proudly represented her nation of Kenya was a notable moment not only for her, but for millions of other young persons with intellectual disabilities. 

Shalel’s moment as a strong and talented athlete on a global platform was an opportunity to focus on what a person with an intellectual disability can do, and not what they can’t. To the world, she represented a strategic direction long overdue, and one that spells significant progress for humanity.

Shalel went on to win gold in cycling, supporting an impressive medal count of her delegation of Special Olympics Kenya athletes. Beyond her strong performance and dedicated training, Shalel demonstrated a courage and determination fitting of a group of athletes known for their grit and perseverance in the face of daunting adversity.

As a female athlete with an intellectual disability, Shalel is using her platform to advocate for and create positive change for perhaps the most marginalised population in Kenya, and worldwide. Through the power of sports, she is able to demonstrate that people with intellectual disabilities possess the strengths, abilities, and skills required for success.

Upon her return to Kenya, Shalel was asked to join the national Board of Directors of Special Olympics Kenya, harnessing the power of her voice and experience to recruit more athletes, and supporters, to her national platform of inclusion and affirmation.

She also pledged her support as an official coach of the Special Olympics Kenya early childhood development programme – Young Athletes – in offering children with intellectual disabilities a chance to learn fine and gross motor skills, socialisation skills, and simple play.

The United Nations Population Fund in Kenya, under the leadership of the Country Representative, Dr Demola Olajide, took immediate notice of Shalel, and the powerful example she offers to the nation.

“Shalel has brought great pride to her family and nation, but more than that, she has brought forth a redefinition to Kenya,” Demola said. “She embodies the spirit and promise of all that UNFPA stands for- opportunity, empowerment, and equity.”

Across the world, and in particular the Global South, girls with intellectual disabilities often face compounded forms of stigmatisation, discrimination, and abuse—at a rate significantly higher than girls in the mainstream.

According to UN reports, as high as 68 per cent of adolescent girls with intellectual disabilities face abuse before the age of 18. Worse still, they face an uphill battle in receiving justice when reports of abuse are issued, with their intellectual disability serving as an underlying cause to discredit their claims.

Girls with intellectual disabilities deserve better. So do their families.

UNFPA and Special Olympics Kenya have taken up the challenge, and are prepared to take a stand.  Through an emerging national partnership model, the two organisations, in partnership with Lions Clubs International, are using the power of inclusive sports, and family health education, to turn the tide and expand upon a platform that has gained national, and global, recognition. The phenomenal synergy aims to re-dedicate to the potential, holistic rights, bodily integrity and dignity of girls with intellectual disability.

Through the Special Olympics Unified Sports programme, bringing youth with and without intellectual disabilities on the same teams and the same pitch, Special Olympics and the UNFPA are dispelling negative stereotypes and replacing them with accolades fitting for any athlete: dedication, responsibility, sportsmanship.

“The leadership of UNFPA in Kenya ya has inspired Special Olympics to rethink what is possible,” said Thuo Cege, Chairman of Special Olympics Kenya. “The ability for our athletes and their families to team up with the United Nations speaks to the growing importance that inclusion – through-sports is gaining across the nation. This is both cause for celebration and continuity.”

Girls with intellectual disabilities across Kenya remain largely invisible to their communities, placing them at increased risk of abuse, exploitation and other forms of entrenched marginalisation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened this plight, with social mobility restrictions and home confinement often plunging this demographic further into despair. In this sense, grassroots sports and physical activity represent one of the strongest, and currently only, mechanisms to combat this marginalisation.

Shalel is a living example of the way in which sports can bring pride, and promise, to a group of girls yearning for their place at the table of global dialogue and decisions. UNFPA and Special Olympics and are committed to using a UN-civil society partnership model to make sure the world not only celebrates Shalel, but follows her lead.

Dr Ademola Olajide is Representative, United Nations Population Fund, Kenya

David S Evangelista is President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia