Dedicated to the Ones Teaching Us All what Universal , Fully Inclusive , Health Access Looks Like

A Reflection by David S. Evangelista, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director

March 16, 2020

Special Olympics child athlete, Malawi

Quarantine. Isolation. Alarm. Concern.


With entire nations besieged by the novel Covid-19 virus, perhaps no single health incident underscores more the urgent need for global Universal Health Coverage. A deep sense of uncertainty has taken root – from the Far East to the Adriatic and beyond- forcing the global community to mobilize efforts, and isolate risk. Since the outbreak hit the airwaves, we have seen not only the mass dissemination of testing kits and government directives: we have witnessed the creation of stigma, misinformation, discrimination, and at times- hysteria. When it comes to such fear- induced reactions, there is one population across the world- perhaps the most marginalized of them all from a health care lens- that knows this social dynamic all too well: individuals with intellectual disabilities.

For as long as health records have been recorded in the modern era, individuals with intellectual disabilities have faced the lowest rates of health literacy, access and care. Documented time and again by the international development community, and witnessed further still by leaders worldwide, individuals with intellectual disabilities remain not only the most marginalized population subset worldwide, but largely the most invisible. We need only look into the not-so-distant-past to witness the horrific reality they lived- and still endure in many parts of the world-warehoused in institutions, locked in cages, tied to trees and chained to poles. The movement of Special Olympics has spent 50 years bearing witness to these atrocities first-hand. When a child is born with an intellectual disability across the Global South, the entire family unit is confronted with
an unbearable decision: support the family, or support the child with an intellectual disability. The world and global economy as we know it simply does not allow families to have the best of both worlds.

The Access Challenge is working day and night to fix this. Through political and social mobilization, the Access Challenge holds the firm belief that all individuals need the same access to quality care, support and information if the global community is to achieve and harness the benefits of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Access Challenge stands tall in exposing the gross injustices facing marginalized populations today, and asks stakeholders from across sectors to join forces in making a lack of health access a thing of history. The One by One: Target 2030 campaign, which seeks to drive the collaborative commitment of all African governments to meaningful progress on UHC, is one key initiative, which has the full support of Special Olympics.

Special Olympics, a global movement dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities through sport, has been advocating for Universal Health Coverage for well over three decades. Through its global health platform- Healthy Athletes and Healthy Communities- the movement offers key health screening services, interventions, and referrals to community-based institutions. It is a movement that trains clinical professionals, Ministries, and associations on how to ensure that Universal Health Coverage is indeed universal. Most importantly, it is a platform that pushes, and facilitates opportunities for national governments to create full access for populations on the margins. The Africa Leaders Forum on Disability – a landmark convening hosted by the Republic of Malawi and Lions Clubs International in 2014 in Lilongwe, speaks directly to this commitment, and has resulted in concerted action across the continent to drive new, inclusive health policies and services. It’s a start- and a good one- but only a start. The world needs strong, and continued, political and economic will to make this a real and tangible reality.

Special Olympics child athletes, Malawi

For 50 years, the athletes of Special Olympics have shown the world what it means to be courageous, forgiving, innovative, determined. In the face of ever-growing uncertainty, we are well advised to look to the example set by these athletes and follow their lead in teaching us all what universal, indeed fully inclusive, health access looks like.

Special Olympics Healthy Athletes activities carried out by Special Olympics Rwanda

About the Author

David Evangelista is the Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director & an Executive Board Member at The Access Challenge. David has extensive global experience in the areas of government relations, policy development, global and inclusive development programming in support of marginalized populations. David has served as a guest speaker for the United Nations, the European Union, national governments, and a number of civil society organizations on issues related to inclusive development, disability, and global affairs.

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