A Special Olympics athlete competing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Kayleigh Skinner

A Fair And Fighting Chance

How three lives from different parts of the world are unified in the quest to separate intellectual disabilities from its painful past.

Hien spent eight years of his life chained to a pole on a street in the middle of town. He wasn’t spoken to, and he didn’t speak. His crime was noted as “turbulence,” or having an intellectual disability. His jailer was centuries-old misunderstandings of intellectual disabilities.

Upon hearing of Hien’s condition from a politician who had visited the area, a Special Olympics staffer traveled for 24 hours to investigate, and hopefully, to help. When the staffer arrived and spoke to his mother, she found what she often finds at the root of situations like Hien’s: fear, and perhaps more essentially, misunderstanding. This fear and misunderstanding was so powerful and so palpable that it led to a little boy being publicly manacled for simply being different.

Stories like Hien’s are shocking. It’s easy to be angry with his mother and with his village, but that is an unproductive anger, one that does not cast fair blame or target this ancient problem at the source.

The problem is not one mother or one village, it’s a cycle of misinformation that has developed over many centuries. It’s a pattern that has been established since the beginning of civilization. And it’s a set of beliefs that must be understood in order to be dismantled.

In Greek and Roman antiquity, the status quo was both ruthless in its reverence to logic and entirely irrational in its fear of any deviation from the norm. The pre-Modern world often saw persons born with intellectual disabilities as not “human” enough to save. While this apathy was cold and cruel towards such individuals, it was far preferable to the superstition which took over with the advent of the Middle Ages.

As Mojdeh Bayat, an associate professor at DePaul University and author of the academic article “Understanding View of Disability in the Cote d’Ivoire,” says, “the views of disability in the West have ranged from individuals with disabilities being considered evil in the middle ages, idiots and objects of pity in the late nineteenth century, and, finally, as being an equal part of a diverse global human society in more recent years.” However, Bayat’s final assertion that we have achieved an egalitarian society has barely been realized in certain global spaces. Even in the most progressive regions, inclusion is often merely tolerated instead of wholeheartedly embraced.

The Special Olympics is an international NGO which aims to provide people with disabilities visibility and purpose, as well as practical services such as healthcare.

In areas with immense access to science and diverse stories, some individuals still regard people with intellectual disabilities as second-class citizens. Yet even in regions where the stigma of intellectual disabilities is far more prevalent due to that fear and misunderstanding, we can still rely on extraordinary individuals to step up for what is right.

Eighteen years ago, a Senegalese woman noticed that one little girl would come play with her grandchildren every day, only to wander off with no one to care for her. Despite being a toddler who had an intellectual disability, the little girl returned alone to play with the woman’s grandchildren day after day. On the sixth day of her observation, the woman followed the little girl, Awa, back to her home. She was surprised to find that Awa had a mother. Even more surprising, however, was her mother’s response to the woman’s concerns that the two-year-old was walking around the streets unsupervised.

“Why do you care for her? She’s not normal,” said the mother to the inquiring woman. Struck with sorrow for young Awa, the woman adopted the girl, whose father refused to recognize his daughter because of her intellectual disability.

In school, which Awa’s adopted mother paid for although it was not compulsory, Awa was introduced to Special Olympics. Because Awa was able to socialize through her education, as well as in her inclusion into the Special Olympics, she gained new friends and new hobbies. Today at age 20, Awa Giakhate will attend the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, representing Senegal in table tennis.

Awa was lucky to find a family and a calling through school. But so many children with intellectual disabilities can never receive an education, let alone participate in socialization, because of a lack of governmental funding. While the UNESCO Salamanca Statement, passed in 1994, calls upon all governments to prioritize inclusive education for students with special educational needs, not all governments do so.

For instance, in Hien’s home country of Cote d’Ivoire education for people with intellectual disabilities is largely funded by NGOs and charities instead of the government. When free education is not a right, or when governments fail to fund or legally assist individuals with disabilities to attend school, society loses a vital aspect toward the normalization and acceptance of these differences.

A Special Olympics winner at the Summer Games invitational. Photo by Cory Hansen

But even in legal situations where individuals with intellectual disabilities are granted access into a school system, there are still obstacles to face: societal persecution that can halt their ability to gain a true education at all. For example, Ankush Saha has a disorder that causes seizures as well as intellectual disabilities, and he recalls severe social ostracization in school that included teachers who slapped him on occasion. Today he is a golfer, and he is also planning to attend the Special Olympics World Games this summer on behalf of India.

Through Special Olympics, Awa and Ankush have been able to find hope amid cultural adversity. Eventually, Hien had the same opportunity. When the Special Olympics staffer sat down with Hien’s mother, she explained that a child like Hien deserved extra love and attention, not shame and isolation. At first, his mother didn’t understand why anyone would care for her child. In her words, he was “not human.”

Over time, as conversations with Hien’s mother continued, the Special Olympics staffer was able to convince the village to remove Hien from his shackles. Slowly the hearts and minds of the people of Hien’s village began to change. Today, in that same village, children with and without intellectual disabilities play together on a Special Olympics football team.

Hien, one year after being unchained by Special Olympics.

There needs to be more stories that end like this one, but if we are to make any progress at all, we must be willing to stare at the source of the stigma that has defined the lives of too many. We need to understand the reality of what life is like for the millions of people around the world with intellectual disabilities. And then, we need to change it for the better.

We owe it to Ankush, to Awa, to Hien and to every other person with a disability who has ever suffered under a culture of oppression. Otherwise, we are bystanders and equally complicit in the grievances against people with disabilities.

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