This year’s Special Olympics World Summer Games (March 14th to March 21st) provide a fantastic opportunity for educators to make a difference. By raising awareness of disability issues in schools and making PE lessons more inclusive, teachers can actively encourage special educational needs (SEN) students to fulfil their potential.
Held this year in Abu Dhabi, the Special Olympics World Summer Games is a week-long event that gives athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to compete with one another on the world stage.
Since being inaugurated by the not-for-profit Special Olympics sports organisation in 1968, the games have provided an important platform to raise awareness of disability issues — and help smash harmful stereotypes in the process.
The power of sport can truly transcend the field of play.
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the physical prowess of African-American athlete Jesse Owens openly defied the racial violence of the Third Reich. In 1971, a game of ping-pong between the US and China in Beijing opened up diplomatic relations between the two nations. And in 2012, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics gave the world a glimpse of Britain at its most tolerant and inclusive.
The Special Olympics World Summer Games represent a wonderful opportunity to reinforce these values of acceptance and inclusion. This is particularly important in the school setting. By focusing on the remarkable accomplishments of the athletes participating in the games, SEN students are able to see possibilities that they might never have thought possible.
Empowering young people with intellectual disabilities is an urgent undertaking. According to research by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), 8 out of 10 young people with intellectual disabilities have been bullied. Disablism in the classroom is a huge problem, and this intolerance can rear its ugly head in the form of disablist language and online harassment (SEN students are more likely to face cyberbullying).
Special Olympics have helped set a powerful precedent when it comes to our collective view of intellectual disability. By celebrating the sporting feats of athletes with disabilities who have overcome the odds to slay in their lane, schools can do the same. Prejudice and discrimination are learned through socialisation, which is why properly educating all students on the key issues surrounding disability is vital.
Leaping over the hurdles to tolerance
For many students with physical or intellectual disabilities, the thought of a PE lesson many conjure up feelings of dread.
Aside from very legitimate fears about being judged by peers, their PE departments may lack the appropriate mobility equipment needed for disabled students to properly participant in games. Even those who want to get involved often don’t have the means to. This needs to change.
Sport can help transform attitudes by promoting tolerance and inclusivity, nurturing disabled students to fully realise the true scope of their potential. Everyone deserves a chance to shine, and that’s why, as teachers, we need to cultivate an environment that celebrates difference.
Leading the #InclusiveRevolution
Education plays a central role in the very idea of the Special Olympics World Summer Games. Every day, Special Olympics organise national and regional competitions all over the world for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. In doing so, they hope to empower youth and educators to be leaders of change. This is where the idea of an “Inclusive Revolution” comes into play.
Young Athletes is another innovative sports play programme for children with intellectual disabilities. It’s designed to introduce them to the world of sports prior to Special Olympics eligibility at the age of six.
Unified Schools is a Special Olympics global education campaign guided by the principle that training and playing together can encourage understanding, acceptance and friendship among young people — breaking down the barriers that exist for people with intellectual disabilities.
If you think the Unified Schools programme sounds like something that would benefit your school, this resource pack contains information on how to organise sports activities that include students with and without intellectual disabilities. The program connects to other Special Olympics events and provides a clear opportunity pathway for SEN students who want to pursue their interests in sports.
Sky Badger is another beacon of hope for SEN students who require a safe environment to flourish in sports. A UK-based charity that finds help and adventure for disabled children and their families, Sky Badger can also assist schools in partnering with local sports clubs and securing funding for equipment. They’ve even put together a helpful directory to help you find local services for disabled students.
Finally, getting disabled athletes to give talks in schools is another fantastic way to encourage more disabled students to get involved in sports. Though not intellectually disabled, blind Paralympian Ian Rose — whose twenty-two-year career in judo saw him pick up countless international medals — gives talks and workshops to school students up and down the country on the subject of social inclusion for people with disabilities.
By getting on board with programmes that make it as easy as possible for students with intellectual disabilities to pursue an interest in sports, your school will help combat the damaging stigma that surrounds such conditions. You never know — by giving disabled children the opportunity to thrive, you may just be nurturing a future Special Olympics World Summer Games champion.
You can keep tabs on Special Olympics developments throughout the World Summer Games by following the #InclusionRevolution hashtag on social media.