Special Olympics champions inclusion by breaking stigma

By playing with able-bodied children, people with intellectual disabilities cope easily. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE

What you need to know:

When people with—and without—intellectual disabilities play and learn together, this builds understanding and friendships - Genevieve Bamwidhukire, country director Special Olympics Uganda.

Sport has the power to bring us all together. That’s how the saying goes. It is quite a cliché. But it isn’t necessarily wrong.

Sport has been proven to play a major role in one’s psychological development. Studies have shown that actively following a sport is a psychologically healthy activity.

Sport has always united people in a common interest: winning. It doesn’t matter if one is competing in the arena, cheering for your favourite team, you are part of the collective community.

More often than not, these spaces are not all that inclusive. People with intellectual disabilities have frequently not been welcome in sports spaces, and not offered the same opportunities.

Special Olympics Uganda, which is part of a global mission aimed at including people with intellectual disabilities, has remained loyal to its cause organising national festivals in which such people participate and celebrate sport. Each participant is awarded a medal in honour.

“Our main goal remains to “create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people,” Genevieve Bamwidhukire, the country director Special Olympics Uganda, said.

Through the Athletics for Development (A4D) model, Special Olympics Uganda uses sport to promote health, education, and community building among people with intellectual disabilities, and their families, and tackle the “inactivity, stigma, isolation, and injustice that people with intellectual disabilities face.”

Bamwidhukire explains that during the Covid-19 lockdown, people with intellectual disabilities were challenged a lot since schools that welcome them had also been closed.

But early this year, Special Olympics Uganda partnered with the German Cooperation (GIZ) to implement a play-based programme aimed at encouraging communities rally behind such people.

Three festivals were organised in Kabarole, Kampala and Jinja districts. Participants drawn from neighbouring schools participated in six activities over two hours with emphasis on run, throw and jump- core areas of athletics development.

Bamwidhukire said that the programme promotes the well-being of the athletes through interactive learning which hones coping skills.

“It’s about reducing their sense of stigmatisation and building their skills in a positive sense, things like building their confidence and their social skills,” shares Bamwidhukire.

Bashir Ssekandi, a GIZ-trained coach in the A4D methodology told this paper that by teaching people with intellectual disabilities to play, they get absorbed in community and easily get acceptance.

Pointing out numerous children with impairments, Ssekandi explained that: “unless you know them well, you can hardly tell someone who has intellectual disabilities.”

Through the programme, the able-bodied children play alongside their peers.

Facing stigma

According to Vicencia Musubika, the head teacher of Kyomya Primary school in Budondo Sub-county in the eastern Uganda Jinja District, stigma accounts for most of the school dropouts among special needs learners. The other factors she points out are: pregnancies and the desire to join sugarcane growing.

“But when the [special needs] children feel lonely, they stop coming to school,” Musubika said.

Kyomya and Bubugo are the two primary schools in Budondo that participate in the A4d project. Special Olympics Uganda trained five coaches in each school to be able to handle the special needs athletes while promoting inclusion.  Special Olympics donated play materials including balls which the schools use during break time.

Musubika said that of the 732 pupils enrolled in school, 229 are special needs children. Most of them have hearing and visual impairment, autism while some have multiple complications. Among them are learners with intellectual disabilities, who are essentially slow learners.

When Musubika was posted at the school in 2017, she found only 24 special needs learners in the boarding section. The number has now more than doubled.

“Since Special Olympics Uganda introduced a play programme, they have been coming most of the days.

Sports teaches every learner the value of sharing play materials and now it unites them. All children share play materials and the able-bodied help the others to cope,” she said.

When Special Olympics Uganda introduced the A4D programme in the school, Musubika noted that about 70 pupils returned to school. This has created a positive vibe.

“With the community getting more involved, they now treat them [special needs children] with dignity,” she noted.

Even though this was not the case at first, there are some attitudes that still limit progress.

“Most of the men here will run away when their wives give birth to a special needs child. At school, we have one couple that even goes ahead to come with their child at school. The others are accompanied by their mothers. They even play with them,” she noted about the community attitudes.

Bamwidhukire is aware of the challenge and believes sport is one way to overcome such barriers.

“So many people, not only parents, just don’t feel comfortable with people with intellectual disabilities. Part of what we do is to teach trainers to change the culture and make it more inclusive by including those people without intellectual disabilities to play together,” she said.


Yet the schools are not well equipped to handle such cases. Kyomya School, for instance, has three trained teachers in hearing impairment who include an instructor and interpreter in sign language.

With a ratio of 1 teacher to 70 learners, there is a need for more trainers who can be involved in play programmes.

“All these children have different needs. A teacher needs a smaller number of learners to be able to train them skills,” Musubika said.

Although the A4D model puts emphasis on participation rather than athletics skills, training life skills requires different skill sets from trainers.

This also creates the need for more equipment. The A4D model has a useful attribute of encouraging instructors to create play materials from available materials. Balls, for instance, can be created from used polythene papers or banana leaves, which can help clean the environment while also providing the much needed balls. Used car tyres can also be used for children to learn how to run while banana stems can be turned into hurdles.

Ssekandi said that by teaching children to make their play materials encourages them to be more active and involved.

“It is a sustainable approach because buying play materials can be expensive. Whenever they are not available, children can be encouraged to make their own,” Ssekandi said.

But Bamwidhukire points out the need to improve accessibility to play by ensuring that more trainers receive proper education on how to deal with people that have intellectual disabilities.

With the A4D grant expired, Bamwidhukire explains that allowing access to sports, and all its benefits, for everyone is now hectic.

"It was very exciting to work with GIZ on this programme. It has helped us reach more people and we have created more awareness. But there is more need to reach out to more people," she said.


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