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 it. Mr. 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.