I am a firm believer that society benefits when every member is able to lead full and meaningful lives. However, many individuals with disabilities around the world are unable to thrive because of the discrimination and stigma they encounter. People with an intellectual disability (ID) in particular, have been largely misunderstood. Individuals with an ID have certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social, and self-care skills. These limitations can cause a child to develop and learn more slowly or differently than a typically developing child. The most common causes of ID are genetic conditions, complications during pregnancy or birth, and diseases or toxic exposure. For some individuals, the cause of their ID is unknown. What is known is that individuals with ID often face barriers that prevent them from fully participating in their community.
That’s why I was pleased to see two events over the past weekend that highlight changing attitudes on the acceptance of individuals with an ID. On Saturday, the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games was held in Los Angeles, California. And on Sunday, the United States marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law which ensures equal rights to persons with disabilities and prohibits discrimination in all areas of public life.
Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics is an organization that changes lives and advances human dignity through sport. The Special Olympics provide sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with an intellectual disability, giving them opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy. Billed as the world’s largest sports and humanitarian event, people with an ID have been showcasing their athletic abilities to the world since the first Special Olympics in 1968. Back then, a thousand people from 26 U.S. states and Canada gathered in Chicago, Illinois to compete in track and field, swimming, and floor hockey. This week, 6,500 athletes and 2,000 coaches representing 165 countries will participate in 25 sports in the biggest athletic gathering in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympics.
This will be the third time Cambodia has competed in the Special Olympics Summer Games. Cambodia is represented by a delegation of eight athletes and five coaches and staff at the games and will be competing in the athletics competition and bocce. I want to recognize the athletes — Uth Sam Ang, Meas Makara, Vorn Sochoulia, Kien Sreypov, Phally Ampor Pich, Thay Sokunthim, Poeung Vuthy, and Rath Samphors — for their dedication and perseverance to become members of Cambodia’s Special Olympics team. As you compete to bring home the gold, I want to repeat the Special Olympics oath, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
I am proud of the Cambodian Special Olympics athletes, as well as their families and coaches, for their tremendous accomplishment. I am equally proud of all the people with intellectual disabilities in Cambodia who have participated in the “Rural Expansion of Sports” initiative, launched last year through a partnership with the Special Olympics, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Royal Government of Cambodia. This project is helping to recruit and train the next generation of athletes with intellectual disabilities so that they can represent Cambodia at the Special Olympics. More importantly, this project is giving them an opportunity to participate in a sport as well as their communities.
Through the power of sport, I believe we can enable every member of society to lead full and meaningful lives. Events like the Special Olympics help foster the acceptance and inclusion of all people. By working together, I believe we can carry on the spirit of the Special Olympics to change attitudes and create a better world long after the games have ended.
I hope you will join me in cheering for the Cambodian athletes at the Special Olympics.