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Sept. 29, 2022, 5:05 p.m. EDT

What happens when a global program allows Special Olympics athletes and their classmates to lead? Bullying declines and grades improve.

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By David S. Evangelista and Amb. Luis Gallegos

Nestled in the landscape of central Jamaica, the dusty pitch next to the Bethabara Primary School outside of Newport welcomed two 11-a-side teams to participate in a regular soccer game. The cheers from the crowd of students reflected a most standard of afternoons as classes concluded.

Thousands of miles away, as students left Ponaganset High School in Rhode Island and compared notes from class and stories from the weekend, there was little in the setting that would speak to anything more than adolescents living their American high school reality.

From Brazil to Jamaica to the U.S. and beyond, there is a counter narrative taking root that challenges today’s dominant ideologies. The post-COVID setting has brought fracture, division and conflict: politically, economically and socially. Among the world’s young, however, that’s just not the case. There are millions of youth taking steps to rewrite and build not only their future, but the world’s future. 

These particluar young people represent the most unlikely of protagonists. They motivate their peers to take up a mantle of dignity and spread it globally. And some of them represent the most invisible demographic in the world.  Who are these protagonists driving a new global vision for the future? The athletes of Special Olympics and their classmates.

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What is their strategy to undo so much injustice? Sport. Where are they taking this fight for love and unity in a world of growing division? Schools.

Special Olympics takes the role of play very seriously. Before children learn to utter their first words, their first language is movement, contact and motion. Before formal expressions, they learn to roll, jump, applaud and throw. 

Special Olympics athletes take their resilience, courage and grit to schools around the world through its Unified Schools programming , inclusive sports embedded in academic curricula worldwide. It has reached over 60 nations and is still growing, district by district, classroom by classroom, basketball court by basketball court, and soccer pitch by soccer pitch.  

Even with an early success rate to date, there’s little doubt we need to see more efforts like this one supported by countries around the world.  

“It is altogether unjust that for millions of children and youth with intellectual disabilities they will never see the inside of a classroom. They will never be afforded the chance to raise their hand and share their thoughts. They will never be given the chance to express themselves on a chalkboard, or a tablet, or to bring their talents to their community,” said Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics.

“We are committed to changing this through our Unified Schools platform and through the grit and focus of our athletes, we see this change every day in communities all around the world, and that gives us tremendous hope that the future can be better, recalibrated and driven by unity,” said Shriver, who has been chairman since 1996.

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Through a generous grant by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and additional partners, Special Olympics implements year-round inclusive sports in hundreds of thousands of schools globally, with impressive impact measures usually reserved for large United Nations agencies. 

Across the Unified States,  94% of schools  report a decrease in bullying, teasing, and offensive language through participation in Unified Schools. Students in Greece reported they are now  nine times more likely  to believe they can learn from people who are different from them. Importantly, Unified Schools programming positively impacts students without intellectual disabilities, with  over 90%  of students without intellectual disabilities in India and Kenya reporting a more inclusive mindset. 

Consider the national policy in the United Arab Emirates. It has mandated that all public schools across the country are to become Unified Schools. And in nations such as Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, and in India, Thailand, Rwanda and Mongolia, they have witnessed first hand the impact: stronger academic outcomes, higher retention rates, higher teacher confidence, and a more cohesive school climate for students of all backgrounds.  

In the U.S., a national Special Olympics fabric extends from Boston to Miami and from Baltimore to San Diego, bolstered by the Americans with Disability Act.

“Unified Schools open opportunities. Mindsets change where stereotyping is broken down to embrace differences,” said Tali Nasser El Husseini, who works with the program in Beirut, Lebanon. “Everyone feels more confident when they’re accepted in the community and accepted for their differences. We cannot build a society with one kind of people. If people with intellectual disabilities are absent, then there will be an unbalance in our community.”

Unified Schools continues to expand to nations worldwide under the leadership of individuals with intellectual disabilities.  When dominant education shifts from standards to principles, the world just might see itself through some of the most difficult moments in modern times.  

“We will fight to ensure that these opportunities are present in every school in every village, town, city worldwide,” Dr. Shriver said. “No exceptions.”  

David S. Evangelista is Special Olympics Regional Manager and manging director for the organization’s Europe and Eurasia operations.

H.E. Ambassador Luis Gallegos from Ecuador is chairman of the Global U.N. Partnership for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies and chairman of the Universal Design Commission.

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