Jamaica hosts historic unified female football match

This was no normal match. Some of the footballing skill might have impressed another team that UNICEF works with, Barcelona FC. Played on the same day as the recent El Classico against Real Madrid, on Saturday, December 3, the physicality of the shown by the players was equally robust, but this game had a unique significance.

Excelsior High versus Special Olympics Jamaica (SOJ) was the historic first-ever female unified football match in Jamaican sporting history – joining together players with or without special needs on the same field. The match was played on the date celebrated worldwide as the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. Excelsior ended up 2-0 winners, but the performance of the Special Olympics team was outstanding, not least the moment one of their defenders coolly fooled her opponent with a ‘Cruyff turn’ in her own box.

“Playing unified is one way that we will break down barriers and we must all work together for a better Jamaica. This is the beginning, this is the chance that we special athletes, especially we the girls want, so thank you all,” said team captain Rosene Hewitt.

Jamaican athletes stand proudly on the medal podium not just at the Olympics but also at the Special Olympics, winning 29 medals during the last summer Olympics. There is optimism of medalling at the winter Olympics in Austria next year in the events of floor hockey and ice skating, following a unique tradition of excelling on ice, set by the famous bobsled team, despite having no ice to train on. Less well known is that Jamaica was the first country in the world to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Sporting excellence helps spread awareness and UNICEF has partnered with SOJ to spread opportunities across the island to get more children with special needs involved in sporting activities. The partnership is a mirror of the global partnership between the two organisations and teenage Special Olympics-UNICEF USA Ambassador Lucy Meyer is currently raising an impressive US$100,000 towards the local programme. This will contribute towards extending this partnership in 2017, helping SOJ to focus its attention on the two parishes, Westmoreland and Hanover, where its outreach is currently most limited and where school attendance is lowest.

“Unified Sports is yet another example of the ways in which sports can break down barriers. When children unite around a shared interest and friendly competition, it does not matter where they come from, who they are or how they might differ. What matters is that they team up towards a shared goal and have fun,” says Rebecca Tortello, UNICEF Education Specialist.

“Looking at the happiness on the children’s faces, it is easy to see that playing unified has great potential in a sporting nation like Jamaica to foster greater understanding and tolerance so that all children believe that they can participate and that their participation is valued.”

The programme, called the In every Jamaican there is an ‘I CAN’ will seek to better harness the SOJ network of caregivers, volunteers, coaches, parents and athletes in support of athletes’ and people with intellectual disabilities’ health year-round, highlight training for inclusive programming and safeguarding children through sport, and share some solutions to build healthier communities and informing families and communities about intellectual disabilities. Specific activities will include:

–    Early childhood development (ECD) programming for improved motor skills development and socialization skills for children with intellectual disabilities.

–    Sensitization of families and coaches of children with intellectual disabilities through direct family, coach and athlete education.

–    Development of inclusive sports opportunities as a means of addressing youth and adolescent development and behavior modification.

UNICEF and special needs 

UNICEF believes that every child deserves a fair chance in life. People living with disabilities constitute at least 10 percent of the global population, and of individuals living in poverty in developing countries such as Jamaica, about 20 percent have a disability.

Besides our partnership with Special Olympics UNICEF has also supported the development of a new national special needs curriculum to be launched next year and piloted a training module on special education for early childhood practitioners. A national screening and referral tool also supported by UNICEF to enable early identification, screening and referral assessing children at age four was rolled out nationally in 2016 and is bring revised for 2017.

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