Special Olympics Romania: Fostering Inclusion, Tolerance and Social Connectedness

By Ilinca Gradea
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

Photo By: Special Olympics Romania

In most countries today, children are significantly less active than their parents were growing up. The causes for this are multiple and complex, ranging from busier schedules to the omnipresence of smart phones and other gadgets. In Romania, over 40% of children did not partake in a physical activity in 2015 and only 14% practiced a sport outside the mandatory physical education class in schools.

This rate is even higher for children living with disabilities, with the most frequently identified barriers to their participation being functional limitations, high costs, fear of injury, lack of nearby facilities or programs, and/or fear of rejection. This is disappointing considering that the combination of health risks associated with inactivity present serious health concerns for populations living with disability. Special Olympics seeks to remedy this problem by empowering people with disabilities and making sports programs accessible to and adaptable for all. More specifically, the Special Olympics Unified Sports program promotes the development of sport skills, teamwork, and sportsmanship for all players. In addition, a core value of the program is the social acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities among their non-disabled peers by creating spaces where both can recognize their similarities on and off the playing field.

In Romania, a lot still needs to be done to achieve equality for people with intellectual disabilities– the school system is heavily segregated and many individuals living with disabilities remain unemployed. Despite these challenges, it is important to see past the misconception that Romanians are not interested in integrating this population. There is a community that is actively working towards fostering inclusion and connectedness for those living with disabilities.  

I had the opportunity to speak with Sabine Menke, the director of the ‘Unified Sports’ program at Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, who confirmed the progress being made in regard to creating a more inclusive society. In the early days of the program, she implemented and evaluated a ‘Unified’ pilot initiative in a number of countries. According to her, the Romanian initiative was one of the most successful ones, due to the diversity and competences of the team, in addition to the eagerness of people to participate and share their insights.

Twelve years later, I am witnessing the hard work that Special Olympics Romania is putting in to continue creating a more inclusive society. As a Fellow at the Samuel Center for Social Connectedness, I have regularly interacted with people such as Emilia Ispas, Program Director and Viorel Mocanu, Sports Director, at Special Olympics Romania. Both have been incredibly open and supportive during this first research experience, either by putting me in touch with helpful contacts or by inviting me to their many events.

I was aware that funding was a significant problem for Special Olympics Romania this year, due to a modification of the fiscal code, which made sponsorship and donations to NGOs harder to come by. Still, in spite of financial difficulties, the events I attended were well organized and extremely creative.

A notable example was the ‘iLead’ project, done in partnership with the Adobe foundation. “iLead” sought to empower 50 athletes with intellectual disabilities in developing leadership skills. They also encouraged positive change by offering educational materials to 12 mainstream schools, 48 teachers, and 960 non-disabled students in 6 different cities. The Special Olympics team travelled all over Romania to organize these events, and I was fortunate enough to attend two of them.

The first event I attended was held at the University of Transylvania of Brasov, right in the middle of the Carpathians Mountains. The first part of the event was a sequence of presentations by students from mainstream schools on how to build inclusive communities. The second part was a ‘Unified’ gymnastics competition in which athletes with intellectual disabilities partnered with non-disabled students and competed against other ‘unified’ couples.

The second event I attended was held at the Peasant Museum of Bucharest, where non-disabled and disabled students all over the country convened. The fact that an event fostering inclusion and tolerance was held in such an emblematic place of Romanian culture sent a strong, positive message. Different speakers, including Emilia Ispas, discussed what being a leader in a unified generation means, and students presented their ‘Unified Generation’ projects at the end of the day.

Photo By: Special Olympics Romania

These two events are testament of a real desire for sustainable change and a celebration of diversity. It was and is a truly humbling experience to interact with people who are as passionate as the people working with Special Olympics Romania. If you want to support their work and help create a more inclusive society, the most effective way to do so at this time is through monetary donations.

Beyond Romania, raising awareness on the benefits of inclusion is crucial. All national committees of Special Olympics International have social media pages that you can follow for more information about their projects. The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign is one example of their awareness campaigns.

Lastly,  I simply encourage you to play unified. Doing so will give you the opportunity to practice an activity you enjoy, meet new people, and become an advocate for inclusion and social connectedness in your local community.