Message From the President of Special Olympics Malta, Mrs Michelle Muscat

Special Olympics Malta has been one of my priorities for the last decade. I remember waiting for the first groups to come visit after one of their stints abroad and remember myself choosing little mementos to distribute to the athletes.  I never imagined that years later I would be chosen as their President, working hand in hand with the National director Anna Calleja to give these athletes a stronger future.

I would never have thought that these kids will eventually be my ultimate inspiration to go through my own personal challenges, not just in life in general, but also physical challenges to fund-raise, in order for these athletes to have an assurance that what they are involved in remains sustainable. Their motivation inspires me, so that together with all those involved, and with the athletes themselves, we give our utmost to strengthen this organisation and the society we live in – a society that is becoming more modern and dynamic, yet also embracing and kind.

The Sport and Disability sectors are very important for our Nation. During this legislature the Government of Malta introduced a Parliamentary Secretariat for Disability Rights.  At the same time Special Olympics Malta has grown to be one of the largest service providers in sports-training for persons with intellectual disabilities. A great deal of work has been done by the Maltese Special Olympics Team who work hard to ensure opportunities for all.

With Disability and Sport becoming greater priorities for the state, Special Olympics Malta has in the past months received strong support from the Government and Local Authorities.  Special Olympics Malta’s strategic plan could only move forward by having full time personnel working for the organisation, giving better services, more help and more opportunities for persons with intellectual disability. This request was granted by the Government of Malta and thus today we are seeing better focus and synchronization put into the organisation, providing it with more energy and ambition to keep improving and keep representing Malta at a European and International Level. Special Olympics Malta also has use of National Sports Facilities, something which again shows the Government’s full support.

Why do we believe in and support such organisations?

First of all we believe that sport is a valuable way of increasing value, encouraging independence and acceptance. Special Olympics helps athletes set goals in their life.

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt. – The Special Olympics’ athlete’s oath.

We see a gradual yet strong development in our athletes. We also want to let our athletes voice their opinion more, so that the structure of the organisation is truly formed from athletes themselves.

Satisfaction comes from commitment and hard work. Our athletes are willing to make their best to be able to achieve their utmost while representing their country. Three of our athletes have been selected to work with Special Olympics as part of the EU-Funded LEAP! Project. This goes to prove that athletes are also willing to collaborate to make this organisation a better one, and not just benefit from its services. I take this opportunity to thank the athletes who do so much and are crucial in the structure of the organisation.

In Malta we are taking great strides in changing attitudes to disability – changing public policy and public perceptions. We all know that work gives dignity to the individual.

Employers are now encouraged to meet a required quota of disabled persons as part of their workforce, or else they have to contribute to a national fund.  This fund is then used to support disability advocacy and issues.

The rate of employment for people with disabilities is increasing drastically.  Last year, the number of people with disability finding employment was six times higher than that of 2011.  It is especially gratifying to see those with intellectual disabilities engaging in the labour market. Meanwhile, those with a disability who work still receive disability pensions whereas an empowerment programme is providing financial support for those who need special equipment to live independently.  Public Transport is also free and accessible for persons with disabilities.

The local National Disability Rights Commission has recently been reorganised and strengthened, to act as a watchdog of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with a Disability. 

Malta is going to be the first country in the world to transpose the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with a Disability into law. The disabled will be able to use this convention to demand their rights.  Meanwhile the Equal Opportunities Act is being amended to strengthen the rights of these people and currently work is also going on to formulate a Guardianship Registrar.

Residential community homes are being set up for those who need them. And a “sharing lives programme” is enabling two disabled individuals to live together in the community, with support provided.

Action is also being taken for the mandatory inclusion of people with disabilities in the running of Government boards and entities. This is important because disability shouldn’t be just an afterthought.

We’ve set up a sign language interpreting service and we’ve even officially adopted Maltese sign language as one of Malta’s national languages.

Finance is always an issue in the voluntary sector – raising money and paying bills. I’m pleased to say that Special Olympics Malta benefits from a direct grant together with free rent of their offices. Facilities such as the national swimming pool are made available without charge to athletes with disability. There is also direct assistance to swimmers and athletes taking part in the Rio Paralympics trials. We are also supporting athletes with disabilities in flexi-training schemes.

All of this adds up to something special – no longer do we sweep people aside. Today we value every member of society. We value the various organisations that dot the island and make sure that they are aware of each other and network amongst each other so that all possible advantages and benefits are available to as many people as possible.  In fact The Marigold Foundation which I chair, actively supports families having to face challenging conditions such as autism. We are proud to have managed to put this condition at the top of the national agenda by creating awareness of what it is and what it means.

Such collaboration with different spheres is what makes the job of The Marigold Foundation even more effective, even in the simplest of manners.

Last April we were happy to light up Malta’s new Parliament, the House of Representatives.

This was appropriate because Parliament, that week started discussing a government proposal for an Autism Spectrum Bill.  This is the first time ever that autism is being discussed within a legislative framework.   The emphasis is on empowering autistic persons, making sure they are heard — a voice that will portray self-determination and project self advocacy.

At the Marigold Foundation we are very happy that this framework has all the different players around one table, something that was necessary to project all ideas in a united front.

One of the biggest problems is discrimination, which often happens due to the lack of understanding of what it really means to be different.

Malta is officially one of the countries considered as proactive and constant in creating awareness and this is lessening discrimination even within the parent community who at times still find it hard to accept that their children may have different challenges.  Our parent communities meet each other and provide help, therapy and support.

Thanks to the Ministry of Education and The Marigold Foundation we now have school playgrounds open during the holidays and in weekends, providing families with a secure and suitable environment for their children to play and some space for the parents themselves to relax and still know that their children are safe.

Last but not least, I am very fond of the parents who are also collaborating with Special Olympics. Special Olympics is not just about the games and the athletes taking part. Throughout my experience in Special Olympics, I have learnt about the bigger picture, the family behind this great successful team. It is a warm and welcoming family – and I hope it continues to grow.

We are a changing society by changing attitudes because Special Olympics raises awareness about ABILITIES and not disabilities.

Sport is fun, but it is also a showcase of dignity and skills…… and a celebration of overcoming barriers.

These people inspire us with their spirit.

They inspire us with their victories.

And …They inspire US… never to give up and to always give our best.

Michelle Muscat, President of Special Olympics Malta