10/21/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Breaking Down Barriers And Changing Perceptions

When people face stigma and inequality, we all lose. Today, there are approximately 200 million people worldwide with intellectual disabilities. They represent the largest disability group on Earth. They also represent lives that are not as fulfilling as they can and should be -- a giant untapped resource for society.

For nearly 50 years, Special Olympics has been fighting to change the game for people with intellectual disabilities and, in the process, change the way everyone looks at this population. Special Olympics represents people who decades ago would have been wasting away in institutions. Today, our athletes can live happier and more fulfilled lives. They hold jobs, own businesses, pay taxes, and, in one example last month, address a United Nations General Assembly session. Many of those accomplishments have happened because of their involvement in Special Olympics.

There is nothing quite like witnessing the transformation of a Special Olympics athlete who has just triumphed over a personal trial. Just a few years ago, Johnathan weighed 380 pounds as a sixth-grader. He was not very active in sports -- his only Special Olympics event was the 25-meter walk. Like so many of our young people today with and without disabilities, he was staring at a future of poor health, inactivity and all the problems that accompany it. Then, his Special Olympics coach intervened. By learning to eat better and exercise more, Johnathan lost more than 100 pounds and began to compete in more events. Along the way, he gained confidence in himself and started down a path that will lead him to a longer, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Special Olympics is a movement that strives to facilitate moments of change like this. It is a movement that incites transformative experiences for the athletes involved but also for all of us. Special Olympics does not exist to provide a service or to help a single subsection of the population. It is an organization that functions at full strength when communities are working together.

I join the Special Olympics Movement with the knowledge that people all over the world are working toward these goals and that there is great urgency to expand our reach and impact.
To date, more than 4.2 million athletes in more than 170 countries are participating in Special Olympics programs. Our athletes are joined by coaches and volunteers of all ages who bring enthusiasm, commitment and a positive attitude to each event and competition. These community leaders help athletes develop fitness, confidence, social skills and a sense of accomplishment -- just a few examples of the skills that will allow them to contribute more fully in the classroom or workplace. The lessons learned on the field have a long-lasting impact on all who are involved.

More than 1.4 million free health screenings clinics in more than 120 countries have been conducted since 1997. Through these interventions, athletes in desperate need of health care receive free products such as prescription eyewear and hearing aids, services and education. Thanks to our health volunteers, Special Olympics has saved, extended and improved the lives of thousands.

Transformative educational programs like Special Olympics Project UNIFY are challenging young people to create schools of welcome and acceptance for all children by instilling youth leadership where young people with and without intellectual disabilities come together in the classroom and in the gym.

The true power of Special Olympics is not how it helps people with intellectual disabilities but also how it helps those who do not - the impact we have on society at large. If our athletes are healthier, they are not tapping into public health resources. If our athletes are employed, they are contributing to society and their employers. If our athletes teach others tolerance and understanding, then violence and discrimination goes down.

And we know from Special Olympics' research that these are the outcomes. Our athletes are more than twice as likely to be employed as people with intellectual disabilities who are not involved in Special Olympics. And countless stories like Johnathan's show that Special Olympics athletes often make sustainable positive health changes in their lives.

We have come a long way, but we cannot afford to be complacent. We are only reaching 2 percent of potential athletes. We cannot afford to settle in a world where only 3.5% of Special Olympics athletes are able to access our health screenings. Being healthy ultimately requires ongoing access to quality health care practitioners and is a prerequisite for being able to participate as productive and respected members of society. This is at the heart of the Special Olympics Movement.

As CEO of Special Olympics, I will continue to affirm the work that is being done on behalf of all individuals with intellectual disabilities, but I will not settle until we have dramatically expanded the impact on individuals and societies around the world.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, was quick to understand the significance of this undertaking. At the very first Special Olympics games, Mrs. Shriver famously said, "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Let us all now work together to win.