Inclusion: A Necessity for Fully Engaged Students

The following blog post was written by a unified pair of youth leaders who participate in local and national youth engagement and activation conferences to enhance their communication, leadership, and advocacy skills.  These youth continue to collaborate and motivate other youth to become active in our pathway towards social justice for all. 

Looking at the aspects that create schools where students are able to express their ideas, engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, and develop a collaborative relationship with the staff to address the needs of both students and teachers is challenging, yet important.  One word that is indirectly included in each of those aspects is inclusion.  Inclusion can be defined in many ways each catering to a certain situation.  However, there are common characteristics that we can define as being inclusive: students of all abilities, religions, gender and race are offered equitable opportunities for academic, social and physical growth; students perceive their peers as valued individuals with unique assets to the school community; everyone is included in the schools’ student body, regardless of popularity, athletic ability or academic achievement.

Perspective from a youth leader with an intellectual disability:
There are many experiences of authentic inclusion at our schools.  When I attended High School, I wanted to join an afterschool club.  One of the clubs I was interested in was the Drama Club because I like to act.  I asked the teacher, Mr. Pody, if I could join and he said yes!  The Drama Club met once a week and we did acting exercises as well as performances.  We also put on a big show at in the spring and the entire school attended.  Mr. Pody gave me a good acting part in the show and showcased my abilities.  I played a big supporting role and I opened the show with a monologue too.

Being a part of a club made me feel included and a true participant in the school life.  It gave me something to look forward to every week!  My Drama Club friends would say hi to me in the hallways and it was a great feeling.  I think that if it were not for the Drama teacher, Mr. Pody, I would not have been able to be a part of itMr. Pody believed I could do it and he did not exclude me because of my disability.  By including me, he gave me one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Another example of inclusion was when I joined a Special Needs cheerleading team.  Many high school students volunteered to help with practice every Sunday.  One of these high school students was Kaitlin and she became my good friend.  Kaitlin was very helpful and really believed that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.  Bringing together young people with and without disabilities allowed us to spend time together and gain understanding of one another.

Sometimes people are afraid to be near people who are different, but once they see that we are just people, they can understand that there’s no reason to be afraid.  Kaitlin saw that I was a teenager just like herself, and we had a lot in common.  We laughed, told jokes, and shared secrets.  We are still good friends today.  Kaitlin is now a youth leader in her high school and has been inspired to join Special Olympics Project UNIFY®.

Based on our personal experiences, below is a list for how others can work towards authentic inclusion in their school:

  • Implementation of a Special Olympics Project UNIFY® Club, which works to educate, motivate and activate young people to become agents of positive change.
  • Organization of a Spread the Word to End the Word Event to raise awareness about the derogatory use of the word, “retard” and its hurtful impact on people with disabilities.
  • Education about the history of the disability movement will show students the individuals who have made strides in this movement of acceptance, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
  • Coordinate a “Fans in the Stands” Event at a local Special Olympics competition.

fall leadership conference special olympics montana eks

this September we are going to be hosting a fall leadership conference and Brady Lum is going to be there for our sessions to see how amazing the gyas facilator Tanealya Hueth is going to be and recongizing soi  during the fall leadership conference am very excited to be doing it….. our theme for the fall leadership is going to be all athens greek and eating gyros for sandwiches that i ate in athens greece and having greek salad am excited for people to be able to learn what i did in athens greece….. i have to make sure i wear my name tag for the gyas and my polo shirt and my blue sweats we got for opening ceremonies for the first day am going to wear my white polo shirt and my name tag and nice work pants and the second day am going to wear my blue athens greece sweats and my white polo shirt as well and my shoes that i wore for athens greece….. am going to be posting new stuff from my fall leadership conference i am so excited about it yeah for me….. i hope people will be able to put on facebook blogs twitter….. i am hoping to teach my new leaders how to become strong facilitors for their states and take back what they learned from the fall leadership conference this setpember…… i am also excited for the banquet saturday the 24th we are going as geeks or beauty from athens greece am so excited to be working it am going to be with tammy peterson the whole time am so excited to be doing the fall leadership conference…… so i get to work with other state gyas people who are going to be new to the fall leadership conference in september so excited i hope it just all goes well……. we also have emma earl helping with it as well she is my unified partner this year for project unify and she was in athens greece with me she might be able to be part of state yac and project unify committee i would have  to talk to joanne and see if she is going to get involved with us and our big projects we are going to be doing…….. Tammy Peterson and Samantha Mcleod is going to be part of this as well and so is kira Bigler and me and my best friend Trevor trainer is going to be involved in the special Olympics fall leadership conference as well am so excited to be part of that group its going to be a big sucess i hope…… i am hoping people will take sometime to spend time in our sessions and learn new things in fall leadership conference this septemeber i hope we will get good comments after the fall leadership is all over i am hoping for a good session and learning what i did in athens greece for the world summer games 2011 am going to be showing a slide show of my pictures and talk about it so my presentation is going to be long i have so much to learn about…. today we got to learn about how to carry the eunice kennedy shriver legacy and we celebrated her yesterday and then today we are learning how to do blogs and coming up with good key words for special olympics blogs so they are learning new information…….

sincerely tanealya  hueth gyas faciliator 2011

“It’s a Wonderful Winning World”

Our third blog entry from a National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) member comes from Courtney Neil of Massachusetts. Courtney along with her sister, Alyssa Neil, has been a part of the National YAC since its inception in the Fall of 2008. Courtney recently attended the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece where she was a ‘Fan in the Stands’ for her sister, Alyssa. Here is what Courtney wrote about her experience in Greece:

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Athens, Greece is more than a city filled with beautiful scenery and vast history, it’s a city that opened its doors to a world where anything can happen; a world that is accepting, inclusive, and truly the best place to be.  From June 26-July 4, this monumental city hosted the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

The first thing I noticed in the city when I arrived was its beauty. The city was something I’ve only seen in pictures and it was an incredible sight to see.  The next thing I noticed was, I had never met so many friendly people, who would do anything to make me and my family feel welcome.  It was so heart-warming to feel like I belonged there, and not just intruding in their home.  It was the perfect setting for these monumental Games.

I have been with Special Olympics since I was 11 years old, competing alongside my sister Alyssa who has an intellectual disability. We have always played together, as a team, standing alongside each other, and being there if we needed someone to pick up the slack.  This past September was when we got the news that she had been chosen to represent the United States of America in Athletics.  This was the first time she would be on her own, showing what she had to offer the world and I couldn’t be more proud. Instead of standing behind her and supporting her, I was on the sidelines, watching my sister be the star she’s always been.

She was so amazing on that track, and she did such an amazing job that I cried every single time she ran overcome with happiness that she had done it on her own and all her hard work and training had paid off.  She wasn’t the only star on that field though; every single athlete that step foot on that track gave their all and exemplified the meaning of the Special Olympics.  One of my favorite races was a 100m Dash.  A boy who spent most of his day confined to a wheel chair stood up to stand alongside his competitors, and the race began.  He ran his race, it didn’t matter that the others were faster; he was going to do his best and finish that race.  Everyone in the stands started clapping in unison, and cheering and chanting, fans from America, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, Ecuador, and fans from everywhere, volunteers, and officials were cheering this athlete on.  It was so moving to see how enthusiastic all these people, from all these different backgrounds came together to support this athlete in his race.  The best moment was when he finished his race.  He threw his arms over his head, jumping, waving and smiling as he was getting situated back in his chair, and the crowd erupted with applause and rose to their feet jumping with him, celebrating his victory.  It was so wonderful to see all these people come together to support someone in their dream.  The funny thing was: I didn’t expect anything less from this amazing group of people.

I am so proud to be a part from such an incredible group of individuals.  I have immersed myself fully in this wonderful organization and have never been more proud to declare myself as a Unified Partner for the Special Olympics. Seeing so many others who commit themselves to the values and ideals of this organization, only gives me that much more confidence that I am doing something right and I will continue to fight for the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, and most importantly cheer them on!

Fans in the Stands- Athens, Greece

Our second blog entry from a National Youth Activation Committee (YAC) member comes from Emily Reyes of Missouri. Emily is a member of Special Olympics Missouri’s YAC and has been a part of the National YAC since its inception in the Fall of 2008. Emily recently attended the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece where she was a ‘Fan in the Stands’. Here is what Emily wrote about her experience in Greece:

Hey! This is Emily Reyes from Missouri. I am a member of the Missouri and National Youth Activation Committee. This summer I was able to attend the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. They were a blast!

Thousands of people from across the world came to be Fans in the Stands! Flags were waving in the air and the names of the athletes and countries were being chanted. That was just some of the things that you saw or heard when you stepped inside the venues.

I was able to watch the Team USA softball team play for gold! The USA gymnastics team were already there cheering when we got there. They let us borrow some of their fan wear and join them with all the dancing they were doing. They would cheer for the Team USA players and dance between the innings. During the song the YMCA one of the athletes changed up the words from “It’s fun to stay at the YMCA.” to “It’s fun to be part of TEAM USA.” I didn’t think that I could get goose bumps in 90 degree weather, but I do now.

At the aquatics venue the Fans in the Stands were pretty intense. As each country swam their fans would cheer their athletes on. I know that when the Team USA athletes hit the water their fans were on their feet cheering.

The Special Olympics World Summer Games were a sight to see! It didn’t matter where you were from, a smile was a smile, a laugh was a laugh, and Fans in the Stands were Fans in the Stands! I was proud to be a Fan in the Stand!

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Ben’s Experience in Greece

7/25/11: Last night I saw Ben kneeling on the floor, hunched over with his forehead close to the carpet and music playing. I thought he was asleep since he often sleeps like that. However; after an hour or so, he proudly brought me a totally unsolicited and unprompted story. To share it with you, the first version is typed exactly as he wrote it. The second version is a direct translation. This is a significant amount of writing for Ben, as it took up eight pages in his composition notebook. He typically writes only one to two pages for a story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

            Terri Barnhart

The perfect place to stand Ben’s writing:

One day I went to Athns Grece for the wolde games for spucshl olpicks. We full to Now York and then to athns Greec. are plan ride was 14 Howers to get to greec and three Howers to Now Yorck. Then we got Grees we were welcomed to Grees by a lot of people for Griees. We tuck some Bus to are houtal at Greec. I had two room mats and they were ok some times.

We had brifst in the moring and eat soom food and ete really to go on are bus to go to opening caremones and we saw stevey wonds sigh some song’s and some fire works to woch. They had crkts sowlay at the opening Games. Then we went back to are hotale. Then we made some Now frends in athise Greec.

We wen into the guvers house and hade a good meeting with hime.

Then we wen to the Beach and sawame for a hower and 30 mints. then we at lunch Beach. We did a lot of Shoping.

We went to the big old towers in greec and wock all over for on Howere and had so much fun and so cool to look at evry thing up high. We went to SO minny coptishons sports. We sowe hand ball ange Athles poram and then we sow tabl tanise and Galf and valey ball.

We at so much food and it was ok. Then I eat some pizza that was vary good to eat. Then we went to closing sarmonys. Thay had so miny fire works that was my time in Greece. the end

Translation:

One day I went to Athens, Greece for the World Games for Special Olympics. We flew to Newark and then to Athens, Greece. Our plane ride was 14 hours to get to Greece and three hours to Newark. Then when we got to Greece we were welcomed to Greece by a lot of people for Greece. We took some bus to our hotel at Greece. I had two roommates and they were okay sometimes.

We had breakfast in the morning and we ate some food and ate really fast to go on are bus to go to opening ceremonies and we saw Stevie Wonder sing some songs and some fireworks to watch. They had Cirque du Soleil (he thought it looked like that style of entertainment) at the opening games. Then we went back to our hotel. Then we made some new friends in Athens, Greece.

 We went into the governor’s house and had a good meeting with him.

 Then we went to the beach and swam for an hour and 30 minutes. Then we ate lunch at the beach. We did a lot of shopping.

We went to the big, old towers in Greece and walked all over for an hour and had so much fun and it was so cool to look at everything up high. We went to so many competition sports. We saw handball, young athletes program, and then we saw table tennis and golf and volley ball.

 We ate so much food and it was okay. Then I ate some pizza. That was very good to eat. Then we went to closing ceremonies. They had so many fireworks. That was my time in Greece. The end.