"I think we're home!" Special Olympics International Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver exclaimed. Joined by 30,000 people from over 170 countries -- including 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities -- the two-and-half millennia old Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece exploded with song and fireworks, cheering and dancing this Saturday in celebration of the opening of the biggest sporting event of the year: the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games.
When little else had been mentioned about their country around the world other than a controversial and painful austerity package, political upheaval, and provocative images of protests, armed guards and tear gas, the people of Greece, together with their President and Prime Minister, declared a different kind of revolution: a revolution of human dignity.
Amidst domestic unrest and economic hardship, the people of Greece embody the ancient values at the core of Greek life, proclaiming to the world that crisis would not drive them to isolation, but rather welcoming with open arms those who are most fragile and most in need in national brotherhood.
In the spirit of epic heroes, the people of Greece are standing in solidarity with those experiencing some of today's most insurmountable challenges -- lack of healthcare, nutrition, education, and employment, along with social exclusion, and marginalization.
Whether one is born with an intellectual disability, becomes paralyzed from a tragic accident, is chronically affected by disease, or is limited by age, different abilities are a part of the human experience. Today, more than a billion people now live with some kind of disability and this population is slated to grow even larger in the coming decades.
From 2002-2005, I led the effort to create the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To date, 149 countries have ratified the Convention, but the work of ensuring the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society is far from over. Despite tremendous advancements for this population over the past several decades, horrible stigmas still exist, such as the belief that people with intellectual disabilities lack the capacity to form friendships, live independently, and engage in civil society.
With this magnitude of misunderstanding, it is not surprising that so often society's response is separation and isolation. When we define ourselves apart from those perceived to be "disabled," we subvert their humanity, and in turn compromise our own. By retreating inward, we alienate ourselves from our community and reinforce unwanted prejudices within society. But instead, if we follow the example of the Greeks, and conquer our fears and anxieties by extending a welcoming embrace and celebrating the dignity of another, we break down the walls of intolerance and injustice.
As it was at the birth of the modern Olympics, in the coming days and weeks, a global community of 48,000 people will extend from Athens to the corners of the globe carrying the message of Olympism: dignity and peace, brotherhood and unity.