It's hard to land in Seoul, Korea and believe that only 50 years ago, the Republic of Korea was among the world's poorest nations. Today, it is an economic powerhouse led by companies like Samsung and Hyundai. Where once there were indigent farming villages, now stand booming towns and cities. Where once Korea was the recipient of aid from foreign countries, now it is a donor. By any measure, it is a success beyond imagining.
Tomorrow, this same country will host the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games where more than 2,300 athletes with intellectual differences will gather for the world's most inspiring sporting event. They will compete in alpine and cross-country skiing, in figure and speed skating, in hockey and snowboarding. They will surely shock many fans with the high level of their skill. Most importantly, they will set an example of grit and resilience that is without peer. No one overcomes more obstacles than the athletes of Special Olympics. No one.
Alas, unlike the nation that welcomes them, people with intellectual differences cannot boast a great success story around the world. Most live in poverty. Most are denied education. Most are unemployed. Most are lonely and shunned. If they were a nation, they would be 200 million people and the world's poorest. Their revolution still awaits.
But gathering as we are in Korea, I am hopeful. If Korea can change so much, I believe our community of people with intellectual disabilities can too. When I ask Koreans how they did it, they usually point to the role of a few powerful leaders -- their founding President Syngman Rhee and the founders of their most dynamic businesses, Lee Byung-chull of Samsung and Chung Ju-yung of Hyundai.
In the global Special Olympics family, we too are seeing the emergence of dynamic leaders who are all Special Olympics athletes. Loretta Claiborne, is here working powerfully to promote inclusion in schools in the U.S. Deon Namiseb is here working to promote representation of people with intellectual disabilities in Namibia. And Taehyun Kim is working to change attitudes right here in Korea where prejudice remains a barrier.
We think of them as leaders of a dignity revolution. Their goal is simple: advocate for full dignity and opportunity and support for the world's most vulnerable citizens. Success will be measured by whether or not their fellow citizens go to school, get health care, live in communities, enjoy sport and recreation, the same as others.
We don't know yet if they will succeed like Korea has succeeded, but we have great hope. A few short years ago, Loretta and Deon and Taehyun would have been hidden away and never heard from at all. Today, they're playing sports and speaking to crowds that include the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi , President Joyce Banda of Malawi, and President Park Geun-hye of Korea. People are watching and listening. The tide is shifting, though not yet enough.
But it is enough to make us believe that another global success story is taking shape in the Republic of Korea this week. What a joyful story it will be if this dignity revolution spreads the joy and hope of equality the world over. When the first Special Olympics games were held in Chicago in 1968, then Mayor Richard Daley turned to my mother after watching the athletes and said, "Eunice, the world will never be the same." At the Special Olympics World Winter Games PyeongChang 2013, we're committed to making his words ring true in every corner of the world.
The slogan of the games? "Together we can." And I believe, together we will.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Special Olympics, in recognition of the Pyeongchang 2013 World WInter Games in South Korea this week. To see all the posts in the series, click here.
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