On the heels of the recently released Department of Education Office of Civil Rights guidance on requirements for providing equitable sports opportunities for individual with disabilities in interscholastic sports activities, I had the chance to meet in Phoenix, Arizona with a passionate group of Special Olympics Program leaders united to shine a light on how to best implement Unified Sports as part of the interscholastic offerings in schools across the country. Launching from the collaborative work already happening through Special Olympics in Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Indiana with interscholastic athletics, we engaged in healthy discussions about the opportunities in front of our Movement.
We see a large opportunity right here in the United States where our society is burdened by epidemic bullying and social exclusion. We already know the solution to stem these crises – Unified Sports. We’ve known this for some time, it’s why our five year Strategic Plan outlines a goal to have Special Olympics Unified Sports happening in 100 percent of our Programs throughout the world in 2015. We know playing unified encourages people to live unified and thus we feel Special Olympics is poised for success in opening new doors to schools and students throughout the United States to build social inclusion through Unified Sports.
Special Olympics Project UNIFY has been paving the way to open these doors of inclusion. Our research tells us school climate is positively impacted by Unified Sports and the friendships created through Special Olympics. The steady progress being made in school climate change is proof that our model works. This proof offers us the opportunity to let our imaginations soar in thinking about what is achievable on a grander scale.
Imagine having the first-ever unified generation – A generation of young people who live their lives accepting and inclusive of all people, especially the most forgotten and stigmatized population, people with intellectual disabilities. It would a be a generation not plagued by obesity, but fit and happy thanks to the opportunities of sport and play brought to them by Special Olympics.
It’s actually quite easy to imagine. We’re witnessing the first steps of this journey to a unified generation in real time as the Interscholastic Athletics Associations opens its’ doors to inclusion and its’ ears to the guidance of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights steadfastly reinforcing the importance of unifying sports opportunities in schools.
Like all journeys, this one is also enriched with powerful stories of attitude change and social inclusion.
Special Olympics Arizona athlete and staff member Jeffery Steron set the tone of our meeting with a testimonial on how his participation in Unified Sports changed his life.
Beau Doherty the “father” of Unified Sports and the CEO of Special Olympics Connecticut, walked the group through the evolution of Special Olympics and tied Unified Sports back to the founder of the movement, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, as the first Unified partner – a sailing teammate of her sister, Rosemary.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal described the significant change in school climate he has witnessed, sparked by the friendship of the star varsity basketball player and his friend, a Special Olympics athlete, who ended up presenting together at their high school graduation.
As with all journeys worth taking, we also know there will be challenges along the way. Our group engaged the best problem solvers we know – our youth – to tackle some of the potential obstacles and to brainstorm creative solutions. Experience teaches us that barriers will inevitably appear. Taking liberty to speak for my colleagues, I believe that one thing each of us took away from this part of our meeting was a feeling of excitement and a charge of energy supplied by this next generation of committed Special Olympics leaders. These young people are bringing Unified Sports and inclusivity into environments that are often unwilling to acknowledge problems, let alone trust out of the box solutions to those problems. It’s a testament to the best attribute we can all learn from our youth – they refuse to see barriers.
“We don’t need a CEO to tell us what to do, we just get it done,” is what one youth leader, Naman Shah, told us.
Between Naman, his peers, our passionate Program leaders and so many deeply committed individuals and staff, I left Phoenix confident that Special Olympics and Unified Sports will be a beacon of light in creating a generation of young people who are healthy in mind and body.