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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Intellectually disabled need better healthcare, forum hears

Healthcare leaders and Special Olympics athletes have called for more funds to train people to give the right care

According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 200 million people globally are thought to have an intellectual disability and 11 million in the developing world. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 200 million people globally are thought to have an intellectual disability and 11 million in the developing world. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Healthcare leaders and Special Olympics athletes have made an impassioned plea for funds to help train people to give the necessary care for people with intellectual difficulties.

At the Global Inclusive Health Forum in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, over 100 global healthcare leaders came together to discuss care for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 200 million people globally are thought to have an intellectual disability.

“People with intellectual disabilities continue to face health disparities, human rights violations, and reduced life expectancy. We desperately need help from international organisations, programmes and ministries to save lives,” said Javier Vasquez, vice president of the Special Olympics Health Programme.

The forum seeks to outline strategies to improve access to healthcare for the 11 million people with intellectual disabilities living in developing countries by 2020 and by training 10,000 community health workers from 20 developing nations over the next three to five years.

“Have you wondered what happens after the Games?” Mr Vasquez asked.

“When the lights are off and when an athlete is alone in the community in desperate need of a health worker, a doctor, or a hospital professional in a developing country – we wonder about that every single day at the Special Olympics.”

Speakers at the event gave harrowing accounts of individuals with intellectual disabilities being neglected, institutionalised and in one case tied to a tree because those in charge of their care thought they were a danger to themselves.

The Healthy Athlete programme that offers free medical screenings to athletes alongside the event found hundreds of cases of tooth decay, foot fractures and loss of hearing and vision. In many cases, the athletes were unable to communicate the pain they were in or were not taken seriously, with people wrongly thinking their health issues were related to their disability.

Mr Vasquez said that a few weeks ago he saw health workers commit people with intellectual disabilities to an asylum due to a lack of trained workers and finances.

Compounding the problem in many countries, he said, there is a lack of health screening data meaning that the specific needs of people with intellectual disabilities continue to be non-existent in policies, plans and programmes. They are “invisible” to the health system.

“Together, we need to act today,” Mr Vasquez said.

In a video message, Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said that health systems must make an “unrelenting” commitment to inclusion.

“To achieve health for everyone, everywhere, we all have the responsibility to seek out those who have been left on the side-lines,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.

Dr Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said that while many events were just about speeches, the Global Inclusive Health Forum was about real action.

“In my 25 years in this field I have seen miracles and people have stunned me sometimes – medicine has done such extraordinary things. Yet I would say that almost invariably if you ask a mother or father, their lowest moment was in the front of a medical professional.”

Medical professionals, he said, who tell the families of children with intellectual disabilities that they should be institutionalised.

“I’m always left wondering how a professional who is gifted can also have such a legacy of pain,” he said.

“Medicine is caught in a quandary between binary thinking – you are either healthy or you are not. But the idea of human dignity is being reversed. Science is allowing us to see the miracle of life in all its manifestations.

“We cannot be healthy if we see each other in binary terms and we count on you as leaders of international organisations to help us restore and elevate the power of medicine.”

Updated: March 14, 2019 07:08 PM

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