How Nigerians with Intellectual Disabilities are Shining through Sports

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Nigeria's representatives at the event displaying their medals

Babatunde Samuel
A person with an intellectual disability, according to the World Health Organisation, has a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information and to learn and apply new skills.

This results in a reduced ability to live independently. Intellectual disability begins before adulthood and has a lasting effect on development. Research by Special Olympics states that 16 in 1000 people in developing countries have an intellectual disability. Hence, it is estimated that there are 3.2 million people living with intellectual disabilities in Nigeria.

It is in this light that the Special Olympics Nigeria (SO Nigeria) – an affiliate of Special Olympics International – is extending its drive for the inclusion of this unique population through sports health care and capacity building initiatives.

Despite the odds
The National Director, Naomi Ejobe said despite the odds and challenging terrain, the organisation is impacting thousands of lives and increasing its reach across the country.

“We are spread across 28 states in five out of the six geopolitical zones of the country – South-West, South-East, South-South, North-Central and North-West providing year-round local training and competition in 10 Olympic-type Sports; Aquatics (Swimming), Athletics, Badminton, Basketball, Cycling, Floor Ball, Floor Hockey, Football, Table-tennis, and Volleyball.”

She explained that for the past 17 years, they have been committed to real, transformative, and sustainable change for PWID across Nigeria. Taking into consideration the current state of the economy and life after sports for Special Olympics athletes, the organisation aims to empower people with ID by providing opportunities to acquire vocational and life skills that would improve their standard of living.

She noted that while the ground-breaking achievements of the athletes with intellectual disabilities have not received considerable media coverage nor nationwide celebration, their achievements are recognised and respected in sports circles across Africa and the world, and would hopefully soon gain a similar attitude in Nigeria. The athletes consistently perform great during regional, national, and international competitions, winning several medals and titles that make us proud.

Laudable achievements
Naomi shared recent achievements, saying “Our Unified football team was awarded the Best Team of the 2018 Unified Cup Tournament in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Special Olympics in Chicago. Also, at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, SO Nigeria athletes participated in 7-Olympic type sports and returned home with 63 medals including gold medals in Football and Volleyball”

She also added: “With our achievements, Nigerians are gradually learning more and are growing in acceptance of the Special Olympics movement. There has been some show of support by a number of corporations and individuals towards people with intellectual disabilities through the provision of resources to support our sports, health, and capacity building programming. Still, we keep working hard to raise awareness of the Special Olympics brand, to garner more support so we can reach the estimated 3.2 million people living with intellectual disabilities in Nigeria. We have over 26,000 athletes whose lives have improved after participating in our initiatives. Our athletes are healthier, more confident, have grown in self-esteem, and have become leaders among themselves (athlete leaders), youth leaders, and coaches.

Challenges
Like many other noble projects, limited resources remain one of the biggest challenges Special Olympics Nigeria faces. Naomi said: “Our challenge stems from obtaining the resources needed to organise programs that positively impact their lives and their community. Currently, Special Olympics Nigeria does not own any sports facilities, and thus, has to pay to utilise sporting venues for training and competition. This affects our ability to provide consistent training to our athletes. Therefore, there is a need for more support from the government and other sports agencies to increase access to consistent training for people with intellectual disabilities by providing free access to sports facilities.

As more Nigerians support and advocate for us, the message of inclusion is spread, and more support is generated for the people with intellectual disabilities we serve.” Naomi concluded.