As an enthusiastic supporter of the Special Olympics who has worked for more than two decades with Special Olympics International, Harvard Law School Professor William P. Alford welcomed the opportunity to help bring about the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games, held in PyeongChang, Korea earlier this year. He explains that the millions of athletes who participate in Special Olympics internationally range from children with very basic motor skills to world-class basketball players who have been known to give former NBA stars, including Special Olympics board members Dikembe Mutumbo and Sam Perkins, a very challenging game.
“One of the major messages of the Special Olympics is that having a disability need not be seen as being as limiting or disqualifying as some people might assume,” says Alford, director of East Asian Legal Studies and chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (HPOD). “These games show us extraordinary determination and level of accomplishments and are inspiring.”
More sobering, though, are the economic challenges and human rights issues—poverty, limited access to education and health care, and a lack of adequate legal protection—prevalent among the more than 200 million people with intellectual disabilities worldwide, the majority of whom live in low-income countries.
Even so, in 2001, when the United Nations issued its Millennium Development Goals, designed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, “disability was not mentioned,” Alford notes. “Certainly that will never happen again,“ he adds; with the adoption, in 2006, of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, and ongoing efforts by governments and civil society to make its promises a reality, “these issues are more front and center than they have been before, but an enormous amount of work remains to be done.” To date, he notes, more than 150 nations have signed the Convention and 125 nations have ratified it (with the United States having signed but not ratified).
With a focus on what happens next, Alford, along with Dr. Fengming Cui, director of HPOD’s China Program, and several HLS alumni, spent two days in January addressing these issues at substantive meetings in PyeongChang, organized chiefly by the Republic of Korea and Special Olympics International.
Alford and others at HPOD, including Cui and Visiting Professor Michael A. Stein ’88, played a central role in helping organize the substantive content for two conferences. The Special Olympics Global Development Summit, on Jan. 30, brought together more than 600 business leaders, legislators and government officials, jurists, advocates and Special Olympians. At the Global Scholars Meeting on Feb. 1, 60 participants from 17 countries gathered to discuss monitoring, measuring and mobilizing human rights for people with intellectual disabilities.
Burmese opposition politician Aung Sang Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and International Criminal Court President Sang-Hyun Song were the keynote speakers at the Global Development Summit.
Alford moderated the Summit’s closing panel, which included President Joyce Banda of Malawi; Chemin Rim, Korea’s Minister of Health and Welfare; Peter Stoyanov, former president of Bulgaria; Loretta Claiborne, Special Olympics marathoner and board member; Timothy P. Shriver, Chairman and CEO, Special Olympics International; and Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles. Alford asked each panelist to speak with specificity about how best to achieve inclusive development.
“My role was to press people to be quite concrete,” Alford notes. “What do we actually do to move things forward? What sorts of things should governments do? What should we encourage the private sector to do? What sort of partnerships should there be between government and the private sector? How do NGOs fit in? What sort of roles do persons with an intellectual disability have in trying to galvanize all this?”
The panelists complied. President Banda, for example, “was writing very specific notes on her notepad,” Alford remembers. “In fact, at one point she turned to me and jokingly said, ‘You know, you probably shouldn’t read over a president’s shoulder.’ She was incredibly focused. She had real suggestions: things she would like to do, and other things she thought the global development community and aid organizations should focus on.” One of Banda’s first acts in office, Alford notes, was to pass a landmark disability law that she now is endeavoring to persuade other African leaders to emulate.
Alonzo Emery ’10 and Charles Wharton ’12, both assistant professors at China’s Renmin Law School, were also on hand at the Summit and the Games. Emery helps run Renmin’s disability law clinic, the first program of its kind in China. Renmin’s clinic has collaborated on projects with HPOD and the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinic. “My father was a professional athlete [in the National Football League] and I fell oh-so-far from the tree,” Emery says, so “attending the Games allowed me to connect to familial and professional passions and gain greater appreciation for how sport can serve as a springboard for greater inclusion in society.” For Wharton, “a key aspect of the scholars’ and students’ delegations was that people were working on so many different kinds of research related to intellectual disabilities — healthcare, education, government policy, etc.” He’s quick to add that he also enjoyed spending time with the Special Olympians and their families, “not to mention meeting [NBA all-star and Special Olympics board member] Yao Ming at the airport.”
With pro bono support from Yulchon, a leading Korean law firm, and Hee Chul Kang LL.M. ‘90, one of Yulchon’s founding partners, Alford was part of the group that worked to persuade the Korean government to host the PyeongChang games. He has been involved with Special Olympics International for more than two decades, serving on the Executive Committee of its Board of Directors and as chair of its Research and Development Committee.
Due to term limits, after nine years, Alford’s role on the board will end later this year, but he plans to stay closely involved with Special Olympics and its growing agenda. “The kind of character, courage and determination you see is very impressive, with real life lessons for all of us,” he says. “I learn an enormous amount from the people I work with in Special Olympics: both the athletes, in terms of character and courage and common sense, and the folks who work there, who are unbelievably dedicated and approach their work with a passion. It’s very gratifying.”