Driving Question: How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then effectively motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm?
Purpose and Objectives of this Collaboration Jam
In support of UN Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning, Special Olympics seeks to engage with social connectedness stakeholders to better understand the barriers and influence the factors that could create a tipping point for inclusive school environments to become the norm. Specifically, a key question for exploration is: How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more academically and socially inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm within North America and around the world?
Background and Case Study
Special Olympics is the world’s largest and most effective organization dedicated to developing and enhancing the unique talents and abilities of children and adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) through sports and competition. Having expanded its reach to over 5.3 million Athletes and Unified Partners worldwide, the organization has evolved since its inception almost 50 year ago to meet the continuing and growing needs of the population it serves.
In recent years, Special Olympics has devoted itself to exposing and addressing the stigma, stereotypes, isolation and discrimination that people with ID face; especially youth in schools. In many cases, school students with ID face extreme social isolation; this fact is magnified by studies indicating that young people with ID are almost three times more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers as well as youth attitude surveys indicating that less than 30 percent of typical students state they would be comfortable even speaking to a classmate with ID. Such treatment and attitudes create negativity that impacts the learning environment in schools. While progress has been made in meeting the needs of students with disabilities by many educational systems, and numerous programs and interventions have been developed to address their social isolation and exclusion, the problems persist as students with disabilities continue to be marginalized and isolated. This compromises their social and emotional well-being, and in many cases students with ID still struggle for the basic right of receiving any education at all.
This social isolation in education environments is not always exclusive to individuals with ID: typical students today also face many challenges, from achieving personal and academic success to feeling emotionally and physically healthy and safe. Unfortunately the typical school environment for virtually all young people can be fraught with obstacles that hamper their day-to-day learning and that detrimentally impact their overall happiness and development.
Overcoming social isolation and deepening social connectedness
With sports as the foundation, Special Olympics Unified Schools (formally Project Unify) has offered a unique combination of effective programs and activities that equip young people with tools and training that help combat the aforementioned issues. Initially focused in the United States, these programs have been designed to facilitate sports, classroom and community experiences that reduce bullying and exclusion, promote healthy activity and interactions, combat stereotypes and negative attitudes, eliminate hurtful language in schools, and engage young people in pro-social activities that lead to improved behavior and school climate. The Unified Schools Strategy promotes social inclusion by combining students with and without disabilities on sports teams (Special Olympics Unified Sports), through inclusive student clubs, together in school or community-wide initiatives, and by fostering student leadership. At its core, this Unified Schools strategy is not just about including students with disabilities, but unifying all students; from adult-led programming to student-led mobilization and action; from sports as recreation to sports as a catalyst for social inclusion and attitude and behavioural change.
Challenges and Opportunities
Seven years of extensive evaluation and data collected by the University of Massachusetts on the impact of Unified Schools programming in the United States demonstrate a positive impact on attitudes and acceptance of youth with ID in participating schools, and greater inclusion in school activities. Data also show that the program has more broadly led to increased tolerance and acceptance of differences (gender, ethnicity, etc.). There is additional if less extensive evidence from some other regions to establish that this effect is not unique to North America, or western cultures and communities.
Building on this proof of concept, continued growth of the Unified Schools Program in the US as well as a renewed focus on global implementation of Unified Schools is a key objective of the Special Olympics Global Strategic Plan 2016-2020. To contribute to an understanding of how the Unified Schools model can be successfully replicated in more difficult to penetrate communities within the United States, and especially in more countries outside the United States, the Collaboration Jam will focus on addressing the following question:
How can decision-makers and key influencers in the field of education be identified; then effectively motivated and mobilized to adopt inclusive strategies (policies and practices) in schools so that more inclusive and accepting school settings become the norm inside and out of the US?
In the majority of the nearly 5,000 schools in the US where Special Olympics is employing its Unified Schools strategy, leadership by key influencers (e.g., student leaders, parents, coaches, teachers, school administrators) has been found to be a key contributing factor to introducing strategies that result in more inclusive behaviours and more tolerant attitudes and behaviours. Consistently identifying, then motivating and mobilizing these individuals to adopt more inclusive education policies in general and to implement our programming specifically will be a key component of Unified Schools Program expansion in various parts of the world in the years ahead.
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