Why I Am Taking a Stand on Intellectual Disability in Africa

On Feb. 10, 2014, African leaders from many countries and many sectors will gather in support of a forgotten segment of the world's poorest people: people with disabilities, and in particular, people with intellectual disabilities.

I am convening the African Leaders Forum on Disability in partnership with Special Olympics so that a marginalized population long unrecognized does not remain in the shadows. I consider this a critical, moral and practical challenge. The Republic of Malawi and Special Olympics are committed to changing the shocking reality that the world's approximately one billion people with disabilities and among them, the 200 million people with intellectual disabilities, often face toweringly high barriers in accessing health care, food and nutrition, education, employment, transport and social protection. Most fundamentally, they are excluded from their communities and their human rights.

I have spent all my life advocating on behalf of the poor, oppressed and marginalized. As a social justice and human rights activist, and now as President of the Republic of Malawi, I have a deep appreciation for the challenges of those on the margins of society. I have seen first-hand the dangers and consequences resulting from indifference, intolerance and most alarmingly, inaction.

That is why one of my very first acts as President was to establish a Ministry of People with Disabilities and pass the first-ever National Disability Act, mandating in law the rights of people with disabilities and the support structures that our nation must provide in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

As a democratic society, Malawi has a moral obligation to ensure that each and every injustice, whether through acts of commission or mission, is met with deliberate and tangible action. We are happy to be joined in our efforts by Special Olympics. From working at the grass roots level in sports, health, education, and community-building in over 170 countries, including the innovative Special Olympics programs in Malawi, to advocating change at the highest international level, through initiatives such as the African Leaders Forum on Disability, Special Olympics demonstrates its commitment to inclusive global development. I have always said that I want Malawi to attain growth that should not just be seen in GDP, but in the growth of opportunities for all, protection for all, and equality for all.

This is serious work. For example, the Malawian National Disability Act provides both legal and policy frameworks that have galvanized the country's efforts to integrate people with special needs and those with disabilities into the country's development processes. In line with the act, Malawi has made some considerable efforts to improve the plight of children with intellectual disabilities. Such efforts are geared towards promoting the rights of people with special needs and creating an enabling and economically empowering environment that will enable them to realize their potential and ensure their full integration into the country's socio- economic development processes.