A Day of Soccer, Football and Inclusion The CIVO Stadium in Lilongwe, Malawi, roared with excitement as the crowd waited for the kickoff of the African Leaders Forum on Disability. On tap were not only a football (soccer) match and music but also a high-level policy summit and health education talks. The purpose of three-day forum in February, the first of its kind, was to support people with intellectual disabilities. The expanded “Mission: Inclusion” partnership between Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International (LCI) also was involved. Since 2001, Special Olympics and LCI have screened the vision of more than 350,000 Special Olympics athletes and provided more than 110,000 athletes with prescription eyeglasses. “Mission: Inclusion” goes beyond vision screenings to create programs to support the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in their communities. This includes the integration of Leos into an inclusive sports model called Unified Sports®. The African Leaders Forum on Disability was a historic event that drew attention to the plight of individuals with disabilities, namely intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her Excellency President Dr. Joyce Banda, a Lion, and the Republic of Malawi hosted the event. Senior African government officials from 12 nations and representatives of top health and disability organizations attended the forum. As a global partner of Special Olympics, LCI served as a core convening partner with top Lions leaders attending. “Lions Clubs International is very happy to be partnering with Special Olympics Malawi. It’s a win-win situation. It fits in with our global support of Special Olympics’ Opening Eyes initiative, and the partnership here in Malawi in particular is helping us expand the Lions clubs here,” says LCIF Chairperson Wayne Madden. During the forum, Banda announced the formation of the African Leadership Alliance on Intellectual Disabilities, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. In areas of limited resources, partnerships like “Mission: Inclusion” are integral in breaking down barriers that make individuals with intellectual disabilities some of the most marginalized and discriminated against community members. “Before we can tackle the environmental barriers that block our children from school, before we can address the lack of training of doctors that block our children from hospitals, before we can strengthen the social policies that streamline family services, this stigma must become yesterday’s news,” says Banda. In the spirit of international teamwork, Leos from Malawi and District 412 energetically suited up alongside Special Olympics athletes from Malawi, the Malawian Football Federation, government officials from Malawi and South Africa football greats such as Mark Fish, Phil Masinga and Desiree Ellis. It was the first time in Africa where Leos and Special Olympic athletes have participated side-by-side in inclusive sports. In addition, an LCIF-sponsored Family Health Forum brought together more than 100 families of children with intellectual disabilities, nonprofit organizations and others to work with the local community on strategies to integrate this marginalized population into health, education and social initiatives across the country. Special Olympics and LCI are working to bring the impact of “Mission: Inclusion” to the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities globally. The organizations speak with a united voice to an undeniable mission: SERVICE to those who need Lions most.
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