06/25/2011 01:07 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2011

Special Olympics 2011: Including the Most Excluded

This week, thousands of athletes from around the world have gathered in Greece for the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2011. Like all Olympians, these young people are ready to test their skills and strength against their peers in athletic competition. Win or lose, they have all traveled a long road to reach these Games. But for far too many disadvantaged children living with disabilities, the road to reach their full potential has no end yet in sight.

Back when Special Olympics was founded 40 years ago, the idea of giving children and adults with disabilities a chance to compete in a public forum was radical. But thanks to the vision of Eunice and Sargent Shriver -- and the passion and perseverance of those first athletes -- Special Olympics took off on winged feet, the proud symbol of a growing global movement to secure equal rights for people with disabilities.

Four years later, in 1975, the United Nations passed its first resolution on the rights of people with disabilities, backed by some of the first global data on disability. In the United States, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act marked another significant milestone in the fight for equal rights. And five years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since then, the treaty has gained widespread endorsement, recently receiving its 100th ratification.

Despite these landmarks, children with disabilities today are still the most excluded, disadvantaged and vulnerable children in the world.

Globally today, roughly 1 in 10 children under the age of 18 is living with a disability. Compared with other children, they are at greater risk of malnutrition and death; of disadvantage by extreme poverty; of exclusion from quality health care and basic education; and of discrimination, segregation, abandonment and abuse. Millions of children with disabilities are unnecessarily institutionalized -- representing more than 60 percent of all children in institutions globally.

Owing primarily to myths and misinformation, wanton neglect and prejudice, their capacities are underestimated, their talents overlooked, their needs neglected. These children are often isolated, marginalized, and in effect, invisible -- sometimes even within their own families.

This is unconscionable. These children have the same hopes and dreams as children everywhere. They have the same right to make the most of their lives. And they can contribute in so many ways to their societies.

It is time we came together as a global community to foster the dreams and promote the rights of all our children.

Experience shows that the solutions lie in leadership, both globally and locally. When we step forward to promote the rights of children with disabilities -- in health care, education and child protection, and in partnerships such as Special Olympics -- tremendous gains are possible.

In our work with partners around the world, UNICEF has seen these victories. For example, in Jordan, more refugee children with disabilities are receiving the support they need to overcome social barriers and emotional difficulties. In Mexico, more families are benefiting from coordinated teams of doctors, social workers and therapists who help reduce the time and costs of seeking care. And in Cambodia, more children with disabilities are enrolled in school because of targeted initiatives to reach them.

We need to build on these efforts, scaling up programs that work and stepping up support for international legal conventions to establish and protect the rights of children and adults with disabilities.

Ultimately, no matter how good the policies and legislation, or how efficiently aid is deployed and services are provided, true and transformational change can take place only if we dispel the stereotypes and fight the stigma -- changing not only our laws, but our attitudes.

For there is nothing more disabling than the myth that children with disabilities are incapable of making a contribution -- just as there is nothing more empowering than giving children the confidence to do so. When we do that, the children demonstrate resilience, motivation, and determination -- and teach us all the true meaning of the Olympic creed.