Schools are not just academic havens, but social ones too, where children and young people connect with their peers, work together, and explore different realities than their own. The Special Olympics (SO) movement is leveraging the role of schools to boost inclusion through its Unified Schools programme. Today almost 4 million people across the world are coming together to fight discrimination against intellectual disabilities, as part of the SO initiative.
Building on SO’s mission to use the transformative power of sports to help people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success, Unified Schools aims to bring together young people with and without intellectual disabilities (ID), engage them in athletic activities – known as Unified Sports – and thus create more opportunities for better inclusion. The term intellectual disability, the most common type of developmental disability, is used for people with limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social and self-care skills.
The programme has received crucial support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), one of the world’s leading philanthropic organisations. “The Foundation has served as a truly transformative partner for our movement,” says Tim Shriver, who leads the Special Olympics International Board of Directors and who in the last decades has seen the movement develop across more than 200 countries worldwide. “Their support has propelled our Unified Schools platform internationally, affording Special Olympics the opportunity to bring our work in schools to every corner of the globe. Their support has also afforded our movement the chance to analyse the data that we have generated on youth attitudes, faculty training, and the ways in which schools have become stronger, more resilient and more inclusive through our programming models.”
Overcoming the segregation of students with disabilities in schools is no easy feat, and Special Olympics recognises that it can be challenging to advocate for social inclusion when even physical inclusion is not a part of the educational conversation. But the Unified Schools programme can be tailored accordingly, serving equally schools which integrate young people with and without ID, bringing together special and mainstream schools, and connecting special schools with community organisations dedicated to people with ID.
Maria Gkousiou, 24, and Notalia Karagiorgou Gavala, 17, are one of the Unified Pairs in the SO programme in Greece, where the Special Olympics programme (SO Hellas) in schools has been operating since 2018, making massive progress in boosting inclusion for youngsters between 12-18 with ID. Unified pairs are made of a Unified Athlete with ID and their Unified Partner, without ID. Maria and Notalia have known each other since 2015 and their friendship has only gotten stronger as they have participated in SO events and activities.
A SO Hellas Youth Leader and a successful Special Olympics athlete, Maria is specialised in cycling over short and medium distances, winning a gold medal in the 14th World Games in Los Angeles and participating in many SO Europe Eurasia Youth Leaders Roundtables. “I love the programme and I like to be with other people, playing and talking, and I love basketball too,” says Maria, whose confidence and resilience have boosted since being involved in the SO initiative.
Also a SO Hellas Youth Leader, Notalia attends the Doukas School, a SO Unified Champion School, where she has been heavily involved in planning and running events for the programme. Most recently she has worked with the “Play Unified: Learn Unified” project which was presented in the High School Cross-cultural Education event in Athens. But most important for Notalia is her closeness with people with ID. “I joined the programme because I wanted to learn new things, broaden my horizon, and connect with people with disabilities,” says Notalia. “I think it has helped me to become a better person – playing with people who are different from me made me see there are no boundaries between us. The disabilities they might have are not obstacles for us or them.”
“Despite the cultural diversity of the world, there is a universal human hunger for connection, relationships, and peace, a draw towards the importance of inclusion,” says Tim Shriver. Shriver says that the focus of the programme is also on empowering the voice of young people with ID, who in turn can help change the attitudes of others and build trust across the divide.
“Most inclusion programmes focus on putting people in physical proximity”, Shriver continues. “We are interested in social proximity, relational trust, friendship, deepened empathy, in empowering young people to be agents of social change, allowing them to develop the social connection that will make them lifelong advocates for inclusion,” says Shriver.
An analysis of the effectiveness of Unified Schools in Greece showed encouraging results on the openness of young people to inclusion. Students who participated in the programme said that they are now nine times more likely to state they can learn from people who are different from them and nine times more likely to feel that they can make their school a better place. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the students with ID in SO Hellas felt positive about how they were treated by their peers.
With the support of the SNF, Special Olympics has been able to transform over 2,000 schools into Unified Schools, train over 20,000 coaches and educators, and provide programming for over 200,000 young people across the world.
When looking ahead, Shriver sees a brighter future for inclusion. “I see these young people who don’t have ID and they own a vision, they see the future differently, one that could be inclusive, just, positive, and they partner with young people with ID. Humanity is beautiful and good when given the chance,” says Shriver, stressing that the entire programme revolves around making people with ID seen and heard. “The main pathway to advocacy, to change, is the voice of the person who has either suffered or has a vision to change it. We need their voices. I have no doubt these young people are leading us to a more hopeful future.”