The Special Olympics is a nonprofit organization that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to access training and competition for a range of sports around the world. Through sports, participants can commit to physical exercise while developing social skills, gaining confidence, forming friendships, and becoming engaged in a community that would otherwise be difficult to be part of.
Dipak Natali, managing director of Special Olympics Asia Pacific, joined the organization in 2006 and stepped into his current role in 2020, leading new tech-empowered initiatives to ensure athletes in 35 countries can still enjoy the wonders of sports during the challenging times brought on by the pandemic. Natali spoke with Oasis to share the Special Olympics’ recent developments and how he became interested in nonprofit work.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): You have mentioned in previous interviews that your mother was a strong influence that sparked your interest in working for nonprofit organizations. Can you tell us about that?
Dipak Natali (DN): I grew up in a single-parent family. My mother had to do everything on her own while looking after two young boys. My mom wasn’t alone, she had an entire community helping to raise us, she had people that she could rely on. That sense of social responsibility was something that she really ingrained in us.
She was born in Kenya. When the Ethiopian famine began in the 80s, we saw the terrible images of children starving. She was a huge advocate in the local community and tried to address the situation. I was very young at the time, but I remember how passionate she was about it. She went to my school and spoke to the headmaster to raise awareness. I was just really proud of her for speaking up about this important global issue so children would know about it. That led to the school running a fundraiser. That was the start of my journey in nonprofit work.
OS: How have you used technology to overcome the challenges brought on by COVID-19?
DN: We’ve been focusing on updating our systems, processes, and infrastructure so that we can attain better engagement and outreach with people who have intellectual disabilities. We’ve been hugely successful in our outreach through sports activities over the past 50 years.
The challenge now is that outreach is difficult because everyone is at home. How do you provide the same sort of experience to someone when they’re even more isolated than they were before? We’ve been using virtual meetings to encourage play, self-development, well-being, and fitness.
To work around social distancing restrictions, we’ve been running virtual competitions, such as a virtual football competition for Southeast Asia, and we hosted a virtual cricket competition for people in India. Our work does not involve high-performance sports. We develop skills and teach what it means to be part of something. We are breaking down sports, and making them about being your best self.
OS: What are some of the new initiatives that you’ve introduced for the Special Olympics?
DN: The big thing for us is that we have been bringing together people with intellectual disabilities in virtual meetings, where 10 to 15 athletes can talk to each other about things that they’re feeling at the moment. We did a wonderful campaign at the end of last year called “1,000 Cranes for Inclusion.” It was about folding origami cranes and making wishes, but participants did it together. It was important because it connected people and reduced the sense of isolation.
We’ve been looking at using learning platforms to help develop the skills of our volunteers. It’s been in the pipeline for some years. These platforms can help coaches learn new skills related to working with people with intellectual disabilities and the basics of being a specialist coach. It’s all online and there is a certification process.
One of the more exciting things for me is the Special Olympics’ health programs. We work with people with intellectual disabilities, so there are many issues when it comes to their health, and we’ve been working for many years with healthcare professionals to improve their understanding of how to work with people with intellectual disabilities.
OS: How can tech startups or MNCs help organizations like the Special Olympics?
DN: I think it’s really important to change the way we engage our beneficiaries. Socially isolated groups need help with understanding that you’re there. The idea that technology can help us to generate awareness of our services is just as important as the means to engage.
There are huge gaps because nonprofits generally are not accustomed to using technology to the same extent as businesses. It is important to consolidate technology and optimize its use for the best effects in raising awareness and increasing engagement.
We have deployed a browser-based service where people can log in and read simple messages about COVID-19 like maintain social distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands. This is a way for people with intellectual disabilities to understand this information and what being vaccinated means. We needed to deliver the information in a straightforward way that these users could access. It’s all about simplifying things.
OS: What can be done at a higher level, such as by the government, to develop better societal integration for people with intellectual disabilities?
DN: At the government level, the needs of people with intellectual disabilities must be more widely understood. People need to start understanding that those with intellectual disabilities can speak for themselves if they’re given the opportunity, right information, training, and support. They can then advocate for themselves and tell you what they need. That type of engagement and listening needs to happen more often.