Building a #UnifiedGeneration Through Special Olympics

“We are gathered here today to unify as a global community and welcome every colour, every religion, every race, every economic condition, in the fellowship of sports for we are the peacemakers” – Eunice Kennedy Shriver

On March 18th, the first Unified Talks event in the history of the Special Olympics, Unified Generations: An Inclusive Call to Action, took place in Schladming, Austria during the 2017 World Winter Games. This talk, the first of four presented by the Bank of America with support from the European Union, showcased the power of inclusion and connectedness within a growing community of 5.3 million individuals.

On stage were 44 youth leaders participating in the Special Olympics Global Youth Leadership Summit. Joining them were Special Olympic community members and advocates, including Samuel Family Foundation President and McGill University Professor of Practice Kim Samuel, former NBA star Sam Perkins, model and Naked Heart Foundation Founder Natalia Vodianova, Bank of America executive Kelly Fredrickson, former NFL star Dale Moss, and technology and finance strategist Ray Lane. Each shared stories about their community building work, along with thoughts on how we as a global society can come together to create a more inclusive world through sport, education, government, media, and technology.

The talk began with a moving and powerful inclusion exercise that demonstrated how we are all connected in our fight to overcome social isolation. Co-moderators, Olympic medalist and Special Olympics advocate Michelle Kwan, and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, Brightfield Shadi, from Botswana, asked all in attendance to stand up and raise their hand if they have ever experienced isolating events. Together, the entire room stood and raised their hands in solidarity. This moment established the importance of the Unified Talks, and why conversation is needed in order to create an inclusive world. As Ms. Kwan stated, “We all have our own stories,” and through awareness we can connect with and support one another.

As the event progressed, those on stage shared their perspective on building what Ray Lane called the “unified world”. For Kim Samuel, this unified world is one where “we feel we belong because we all do belong.” She also echoed a point made by Alex from Shanghai, China, who said that individuals need to know “they are not different” in a negative way, and that the unique abilities and skills that they bring to their community must be highlighted. As Matthew Dodds from Great Britain shared, “It’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do.” In other words, community building is about how we choose to treat others and strive to promote equality and inclusion as core values.

Youth leaders also shared their Unified Projects, which promote the inclusion of individuals living with intellectual disabilities in their communities. Allie Goldblatt and Caitlin Hass from Colorado, USA have created Unified Adventures, a project inviting everyone with and without intellectual disabilities to connect through nature by participating in outdoor activities, such as hiking together in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Abdul Basit and Muhammad Haseeb Abassi from Pakistan are channelling the power of storytelling in overcoming isolation. Their project,  Unified Narratives, has brought together storytellers with and without intellectual disabilities to develop a storybook about inclusivity to be shared in schools.

In addition to sharing their projects, youth leaders and the Special Olympic community members and advocates shared personal stories of experiencing and overcoming isolation. Both Matthew Dodds from Great Britain and Alex from Shanghai, China shared their journey of overcoming the struggle to talk with others about their feelings of isolation and highlighted the importance of awareness through conversations. Dale Moss explained how his life had forever changed after participating in the 2015 LA Summer Games. He stated that Special Olympic athletes, partners and volunteers helped create an atmosphere of empathy and understanding, which he feels are the building blocks of inclusive communities.

Kim Samuel said, “A teacher is someone who cares and creates a platform for others to share their knowledge, experience and stories.” These youth leaders are those teachers. Through their unified projects, and by sharing their personal journeys of overcoming isolation, the youth leaders of Special Olympics are creating spaces and opportunities for individuals to share their knowledge and experiences with one another.

Special Olympics is a growing community of over 5.3 million individuals who see inclusion as a core value in their daily living. It is a community that lifts up its members, supporting and celebrating everyone’s unique abilities. One of its main goals is to create a #UnifiedGeneration where individuals with intellectual disabilities are integrated into all aspects of society.

Before the event concluded, everyone in attendance made the following ‘Pledge for Inclusion’: “I pledge to #ChangeTheGame for inclusion and join the Special Olympics in using my voice to build an inclusive and unified world. I will take action as a leader of a unified generation that is accepting of all.”

Will you take this pledge and join the #UnifiedGeneration? Find out more by visiting www.specialolympics.org.