A First-Hand Look at the Special Olympics Play Unified Global Youth Leadership Summit

By Gemma Maclean and Matthew Dodds 

Gemma Maclean first heard about the Special Olympics Play Unified program — which engages young people with and without intellectual disabilities in unified activities — at the Youth Sport Trust Conference in 2015.

“Because of my previous experience working at a camp for kids and adults with special needs, it was something I was really interested in,” said Gemma. “Wanting to go into special education within PE myself, I got in touch with Youth Sport Trust Program Manager, Vicci Wells, who said she would keep me in mind for any opportunities that were coming up.”

One opportunity came in the form of the Special Olympics Play Unified Global Youth Leadership Summit, which took place in Austria during the 2017 World Winter Games earlier this year. The Summit brought together participants from 18 different countries to develop leadership skills and advance the Special Olympics Movement and inclusion throughout the world. To attend the event, each group had to develop an inclusive project to implement in their home countries and proceed through a competitive application process.

Joining Gemma were Matthew Dodds, a Special Olympics Great Britain World Games gold medal-winning footballer, ambassador and athlete leader and Vicci Wells from the Youth Sport Trust.

“The first part of the application was pretty standard,” Gemma explained. “We had to provide information on ourselves and the experiences we had working with people with special needs, as well as our backgrounds in volunteering and what our interests were. The main block of the application was the proposal, so Matthew and I had to come up with a project that we wanted to launch in the UK with the funding that we would be given.”

Gemma and Matthew chose to create an inclusive, unified drama piece around the theme of sport. “We really liked the idea of using sport and drama at the same time to unify people with and without intellectual disabilities,” said Gemma. The play they developed will be delivered in 10 schools where individuals with and without intellectual disabilities will participate together. This project for Matthew was created to “help others understand one another and not feel left out”. Their inclusive project will be launched on the 8th of August.

After being accepted, the UK team arrived at the Summit where they attended workshops, learned from other nations, and heard some incredibly inspiring stories. “We had workshops around leadership, learning about different leadership styles and brands, [and] on our specific projects and what we had proposed,” said Gemma.

At the end of the Summit, the youth leaders participated in a project expo that featured their projects through posters they created. “We were told to concentrate on the ‘why’ instead of the ‘what’, informing people of the impact we would be having rather than just what the project is,” Gemma explained.

The variety of projects that were on show was one of the things that really stood out for Gemma: “Every project was completely different and used different methods of action. Some people were using gardening, some were using outdoor adventure, some people were using music while others were using sport, drama or exercise. There was a massive range of projects, but they were all under the same goal of having people with and without intellectual disabilities working together.” The highlight of the Summit for Matthew was participating in the Unified Talks, along with “meeting other athlete leaders from other parts of the world”.

When asked about how she was inspired by her time away, Gemma recounted listening to the story of one of the other participants: “One that sticks out is a boy called Joe, who is 22 years old and spoke at a Unified Talks event. Joe told us that when he was born, he was the size of an iPhone because he was three months premature, which meant a lot of his organs hadn’t fully developed; his brain and eyesight hadn’t fully developed, so he always grew up smaller than the other boys in his school. Because of this he was bullied and the quote he used was that his time in middle school was ‘like an extended prison sentence’ because he always felt so isolated and alone. But he was able to find sport going into high school where he was actually able to meet like-minded people who were able to get him out of that prison atmosphere he felt he was in and actually have fun and make memories. He got involved in the Special Olympics where he managed to make loads of new friends, from which he became more confident in himself, to the point where he was able to deliver Play Unified events and do public speaking and share his story of overcoming these bullies despite his intellectual disabilities. That was a really powerful story, especially when he was up on stage talking about how he used to be this really, really shy young boy, and now he’s in front of 300 people from all around the world.”

Having returned from Austria, Gemma and the rest of the team are now looking to start their project, which is being launched in August alongside the Special Olympics Summer Games. The project will be available for all Play Unified Schools to apply for, with the school that engages with it best having the opportunity to perform the drama piece at a national event.

When asked if the Youth Sport Trust has had an impact on her development, Gemma answered emphatically: “Oh massively! There is no way that I would have the skill set to work with young people that have intellectual disabilities, or even be able to work with young people on the whole if it wasn’t for my experiences and opportunities with the YST. It is that experience of working with all types of people that is really beneficial, especially when it comes to teaching. So it’s been a massive help in terms of my own personal development with communication and organisation and time keeping and everything that I will need in the future to be a great teacher having come from being a Team Leader.”