The American educational system was founded upon the principles of democracy. Most importantly, it was built on equity and justice so that all youth would have the opportunity to become competent, active and honorable citizens.
Over two centuries later, these principles remain crucial to our democracy, and it is vital that the youth of our nation graduate with the 21st century skills they need to be informed, working and productive citizens. Studies have shown that an individual who has at least a high school diploma is more likely to be successfully and satisfyingly employed, and this likelihood only increases when that individual has earned a college degree.
Despite the huge benefits of education, students often drop out because they don’t get along with others, don’t feel as if they belong or don’t feel safe. And, what we know at Special Olympics is that when you throw a disability into the mix, a student’s likelihood of being bullied and being excluded in social situations nearly triples, as does the probability that a student will drop out. According to some studies, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is just over 32 percent.
Building Authentic Social Inclusion
At Special Olympics, we believe that one way to address this issue is through a broader vision of inclusion. Authentic social inclusion is a building block in many effective strategies for youth development and education, not only for students with disabilities, but for all students.
Americans have long looked to the Special Olympics movement as being at the heart of building this authentic social inclusion and, as a result, a more healthy, hopeful and accepting nation. The current generation of athletes, volunteers, family leaders and committed citizens are fulfilling this vision, with urgency and dedication make a difference.
Inclusive Sports Activities: Project UNIFY
With their eyes on this vision, young people throughout the country have launched Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Project UNIFY is a multi-level effort that uses inclusive sports activities such as the Special Olympics Unified Sports® teams to promote a youth-led vision of ending prejudice, as well as to create schools and communities of acceptance for all. Their efforts are grounded in a firm belief in the power of sports and in their ability to help participants build meaningful relationships and become motivated citizens. At the core of Project UNIFY lies a paradigm shift: young people are seen as architects, building relationships and community, rather than merely as recipients of programming.
Project UNIFY aims to ensure that every student develops the intellectual, emotional, physical and civic abilities that he or she needs to be successful. This initiative focuses on creating and sustaining inclusive educational systems, school climates, classroom practices and community engagement by integrating Special Olympics programs with ongoing youth activities.
The Project UNIFY “toolkit” provides staff members, volunteers, students, teachers and principals with resources to help them successfully implement the components of this project: inclusive sports (such as Unified Sports® and Young Athletes™ programs), youth leadership and advocacy (such as Partners Clubs and youth volunteer training) and whole-school involvement (such as rallies for respect, education and advocacy campaigns). These resources include service-learning curricula, lesson plans and ideas for activities that promote respect and combat bullying and name-calling. You can read more about these programs at http://www.specialolympics.org/putoolkit/.
Meaningful and Measurable Change
These efforts are designed to create specific and measurable change, not only in the lives of students with special needs, but also in the lives of their peers without disabilities—these initiatives are far more than a random array of feel-good programs! In fact, independent evaluation shows that 78 percent of participating students without disabilities said that Project UNIFY “was a positive turning point in their lives”; 79 percent of these students felt that they became more patient and learned to compromise and 65 percent felt that they learned that they have things in common with their peers with intellectual disabilities.
Teachers and administrators at participating schools have also clearly seen the value of Project UNIFY: 65 percent of teacher liaisons observed that Project UNIFY helps raise awareness about students with intellectual disabilities, and 64 percent said that it increases opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities to work together. Most impressive is that 92 percent of teacher liaisons said that they find Project UNIFY valuable to their school as a whole. In addition, 75 percent of school administrators surveyed reported that students with intellectual disabilities were more involved in school activities and 58 percent viewed Project UNIFY as “having an impact on reducing bullying, teasing or the use of offensive language in their schools.”
Project UNIFY strives to be an ally in fighting bullying and lack of student engagement in schools, both of which are key factors in increased dropout rates. We are committed to fighting childhood obesity through increased physical activity, to promoting schools in which all students are invited to serve and to targeting intolerance, bullying and hate speech by opening the eyes of a new generation to discrimination—discrimination about which they are frequently unaware and in which they often unwittingly participate. Project UNIFY seeks to provide a tipping point for school climate and culture as young people, both with and without intellectual disabilities, are encouraged to collaborate to create their own community values and norms.
Reshaping Schools and Minds with Project UNIFY
We believe that Special Olympics Project UNIFY is capable of reshaping schools, moving them closer to a fresh, broader vision of inclusion that leads to deeper relationships, greater self-worth and feelings of belonging for every student and increased student engagement—all important factors in keeping all students in school and equipping them with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom, in their careers and in life.
Every day, we hear from young people, teachers, superintendents and others who are experiencing the transformation that takes place when every student is included regardless of “ability,” is valued and is involved in collaborating to create welcoming and accepting environments in their schools. We invite you to join in this commitment, to share your own ideas and to help to create a strong network devoted to establishing a culture where young people are the architects of their own futures.