Andrea L. Cahn, Senior Director of Special Olympics Project UNIFY
When you walk through the hallways of your child’s school, does it feel as if all students are part of the fabric of the school? Is it a place of respect and appreciation for individual differences? Do all students feel a sense of belonging, have friends, and are excited to go to school every day? I have found that in most schools, while physical inclusion and curricular inclusion cover the academic needs of students, social inclusion and the engagement of all students on personal levels is still a frequent challenge. And studies show it is just as important for a student’s success. For the past six years, Special Olympics Project UNIFY has worked to address this challenge, and provide schools a powerful avenue to social inclusion.
It may surprise some of you to know that Special Olympics is much more than an event; it is an organization that uses sports to improve the lives of people with intellectual disability by creating programming that involves people of all abilities, and includes everyone. I have been at Special Olympics for 25 years, and believe me, we have evolved! Special Olympics Project UNIFY is the hallmark of this effort in the U.S. school system. We offer a social inclusion model that combines students with and without intellectual disabilities on school sports teams (Unified Sports), and broadens the experience through inclusive student clubs and school-wide initiatives. Project UNIFY creates an environment where each student is included and accepted for who they are. These students play unified by being involved in sports together, experience winning and losing together, and live unified by sharing leadership, eating lunch together, and modeling acceptance for the entire school. There is indication that this kind of activity pays dividends toward all our education goals.
Our evaluation reveals that students without disabilities credit Project UNIFY with helping them learn to be more patient, to compromise when working together, and to understand how their emotions and attitudes affect others around them. According to the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, 85% of students without disabilities stated that involvement in Project UNIFY was a positive turning point in their lives; and administrators and teachers acknowledge the role that Project UNIFY has played in reducing bullying and teasing, and creating a more inclusive climate in the school, in which students are open to and accepting of differences. Students with disabilities are making new friends and getting to try new things. Project UNIFY has helped many feel like they are truly part of the school for the first time.
How can you get Project UNIFY started in your school? Connect your school with Special Olympics. Each state and the District of Columbia has a Special Olympics Program with a support staff in place to help schools implement Project UNIFY. Below you will find links to a variety of free resources to assist you on this journey. You will discover so much more than sports. It is a way to live – unified.
Special Olympics Contacts: www.specialolympics.org/program_locator.aspx
Coaching Unified Sports Course: www.nfhslearn.com
Social Inclusion Course and Guidelines: www.socialinclusion.org
Unified Sports Resources: tiny.cc/unifiedsports
Get Into It Lessons: www.getintoit.specialolympics.org
NASSP Social Inclusion Webinar: tiny.cc/NASSPwebinar
National Association of State Boards of Education Journal,
The Standard (Social Inclusion Theme): tiny.cc/NASBE
Social Inclusion course and background: www.socialinclusion.org
Andrea Cahn has been with Special Olympics International for the past 25 years, where she currently leads Project UNIFY, the youth engagement and activation strategy that promotes school communities where all young people, as well as adult leaders, become agents of change. The program currently is in 45 states and more than 3,000 schools and reaching 3.4 million students with messages and activities that promote inclusive youth leadership and social inclusion.
Couple – Unified Sports Basketball teammates, Special Olympics International
Group shot – Members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee. Will Schermerhorn, Special Olympics International