09/24/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Finding An Invisible People

What do international health organizations that immunize children throughout Africa, Europe's system of "socialized" medicine, and the United States' Medicaid programs have in common? While all well-intentioned efforts, they routinely fail to reach one of the most severely under-served populations found in every community and every country in the world -- people with intellectual disabilities.

Their hearts are in the right place, but NGOs with school-based programs don't reach those children in developing countries who are barred from attending school. If doctors in Europe lack the training to treat the needs of certain patients, then their systems of health care are not truly universal. And U.S. reimbursement programs fail to fill gaps if they don't allow for the extra time it may take to treat someone with a disability.

The health care disparities in these areas are not unique -- they are but a few examples of systemic shortfalls that exist everywhere across the globe. People with intellectual disabilities constitute a hidden population -- 200 million strong worldwide -- that routinely battles chronic diseases at far greater rates than others and tragically dies years younger as a result. Yet they remain invisible, not only to mainstream health systems, but also to the fail-safes put in place specifically to help those in need.

Special Olympics is in a unique position to reach this population. It has spent nearly 50 years building its worldwide networks for organizing sports competitions and 15 years providing health screenings and education through its Healthy Athletes program. Now, partnering on the Clinton Global Initiative commitment "Health Justice for People with Intellectual Disabilities" made by Tom Golisano, Special Olympics is expanding its reach so that more people with intellectual disabilities are finally seen. The 2013 CGI Annual Meeting represents a progress report on the successes achieved since the launch of this partnership and the challenges yet to be overcome.

From remote villages in rural Malawi, to top universities across the world, to YMCAs in New York and Kansas, Special Olympics Programs are currently -- as CGI calls on all of us to do this year - mobilizing for impact, by transforming the way communities, governments, businesses and sports address health for people with intellectual disabilities. In its first year, the program Special Olympics Healthy Communities, made possible by the CGI commitment, has already resulted in health clinics in 54 new locations, providing services for 11,476 previously underserved Special Olympics athletes, and health education for 9,972 athletes, family members and coaches.

To address health care disparities, specific training was provided to 9,182 medical professionals through this Healthy Communities program, enabling them to return to their communities with increased knowledge of people with intellectual disabilities and a greater willingness to have them as patients. New partnerships have been created with 98 organizations, universities and health care providers at the local level to provide follow-up care free of charge to Special Olympics athletes.

Behind these numbers are people whose lives have been forever transformed through better health and wellness -- including Tatjana from Romania, who was discovered to have an urgent eye condition requiring surgery. And Kenny from Wisconsin, who received free dental care allowing him to finally live without pain in his mouth. Clement from Malawi, once beaten because of his disability, saw the attitude of his entire community change after a Special Olympics forum offered education about intellectual disability. And Josué Figueroa from Mexico received eyeglasses that allowed him to see for the first time in his life.

The stories go on and on, each one representing not only an athlete who now lives a healthier life but also a family whose burden is lighter, a team of health volunteers better trained to help others with intellectual disabilities, and a community with its eyes opened to a population in need.

Still, the work has only just begun. There are over 200 million people with intellectual disabilities and most remain not just on the sidelines of sports but on the sidelines of health care. This can and must end. Our shared commitment is to ensure that the simplest of standards is met -- equality. Nothing else will suffice.

The challenge is large. Special Olympics currently reaches just over 4.2 million athletes, a small fraction of those who deserve better. Millions remain invisible, hidden in every community and in desperate need of health care and social justice. Their outcomes will change when parties step forward and commit to making the invisible seen. The time is now. Our consciences and our values are at stake. Equality deferred is equality denied. Let's not make that our legacy.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in conjunction with the latter's ninth Annual Meeting (September 23-26 in New York City). This week, President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton convene more than 1,000 global leaders under the Annual Meeting's theme for 2013 -- Mobilizing for Impact -- to advance solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. For more information on the Annual Meeting, click here. To see all of the posts by CGI mobilizers in the series, click here.