The inclusive volleyball team from Krusevac, Serbia, formed as part of the USAID/Special Olympics "Inclusion for All" project. / Special Olympics

The inclusive volleyball team from Krusevac, Serbia, formed as part of the USAID/Special Olympics “Inclusion for All” project. / Special Olympics

It remains one of the most marginalized populations in the world. It is a disability subset that has consistently witnessed widespread discrimination and stigma, hindering its ability to advance. It is a group that has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented. This population — individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID) — still exists very much on the margins of both developed and developing nations. Through focused, country-level partnerships, Special Olympics is working together with USAID missions to create inclusive development strategies and programs to support individuals with ID.

The innovation that these partnerships offer to the development community, foreign governments and civil society alike is the methodology used: the unifying power of sport.

Despite significant gains made across the world in critical development areas like poverty eradication, gender equality, and global health, individuals with ID experience some of the lowest access rates, across sector, of any subset globally. Estimates from leading development agencies, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, demonstrate that individuals with ID experience a poverty of access to basic services that plunge them, and their extended families, into a repeated cycle of exclusion and isolation. This isolation can be felt in every aspect of life.

Special Olympics and USAID are working together to change that.

As part of the USAID-Special Olympics partnership initiative in Serbia and Montenegro, launched in September 2012, seminars increased public awareness of intellectual disability and what strategies could be employed to achieve greater social inclusion.

The seminars’ results speak to a strong response. From the 17 seminars organized throughout Serbia and Montenegro, 34 Unified Sports (inclusive) teams were created with over 350 participants and led to more than 200 local competitions. Special Olympics Serbia athletes reported that 81 percent felt more accepted by their peers since joining Unified Sports programs, and all participants were eager to continue the team trainings and competitions. The success of this program emphasizes the need for sustained access to sport to achieve key development indicators, and the important role sport.

Most recently, Special Olympics and USAID have joined forces to offer increased capacity in development-through-sports services in rural Cambodia. The project will increase participation of people with ID in rural Cambodia through the provision of local sports programming, coaches training, and orientation on public awareness on intellectual disability.

The project, initiated in 2014, will formally recruit over 1,000 new Special Olympics Cambodia athletes, 250 families and over 100 new coaches in various sports modules. This simple model of engaging individuals with and without disabilities through sport has underscored the viability of a key tool in the quest for inclusive and sustainable development.

As the world pauses today to recognize the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Special Olympics is proud of our joint efforts with USAID which hold increased promise that all individuals, including those with ID, will share in the benefits of a new round of development goals. This promise is not only a cause for celebration, but of increased action across all sectors to bring this vision of human dignity to all communities under the banner of perhaps the most active foreign aid agency in the world in support of marginalized groups.


David Evangelista is Vice President, Global Development and Government Relations for Special Olympics. Follow Special Olympics @SpecialOlympics