Inclusion in Action

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, I shared a blog post from Teri Dary about the importance of involving youth in the process of creating inclusive schools. Today I received an essay from Samantha McLeod that almost perfectly exemplifies what Teri talked about – youth need to be involved because they have the power to change school climate. Samantha is a member of the National Youth Activation Committee and a student at the University of Montana. Below she shares her experience of working with other students to turn their High School into a place of acceptance and inclusion.

I went to a high school where “inclusion” was not a norm until my senior year. As a freshman, I never saw the students enrolled in “special education” classes. I never understood why or even where they were but I also never ventured out to find those answers.

Midway through my sophomore year, I started volunteering as a unified partner for our local Special Olympics Ski team and these questions became more prominent in my mind. I learned that those in the special education program were kept in a completely separate part of the building and were not allowed to participate in many school functions.

A few months after I began volunteering with Special Olympics, a few of the wrestlers at my high school started a petition asking for one of the special education students, Nick, to join their wrestling team. There were so many people in support of this idea that our district couldn’t say no and that year he was able to join the team! This was the start of a movement in my class.

During my junior year my school started including the special education kids in inclusive classes. These were basic elective classes that they would attend with the rest of the student body. After these classes began, I started to see our whole school atmosphere shift. People went from being afraid of those students, to being open and warm with them, dare I even say, friends. Everyone that was touched by this change was changed themselves.

Then it was time for the spotlight. My senior year, my friend Jade, who was one of the captains of the football and basketball teams, and I decided we were going to leave a mark on our school. Jade started the ‘Honorary Co-captain’s Program’, which gave students with an intellectual disability the chance to be a part of our school sports teams. Every home game (both football and basketball), the team would choose a student at our high school who was in the special education program to be a co-captain. This co-captain would walk on to the court or field with the other captains and shake the other team’s hands and get to call the coin toss. They got to sit on the bench with the team during the game and were given a signed ball or jersey from the team and got to take pictures with all of them. It was truly the most amazing thing to watch. It’s something those kids will remember for the rest of their lives.

My way of making a difference had to do with sports as well. While Jade was including students into our school sports I wanted to honor those students and athletes for their accomplishments off the playing field. With help from a committee of teachers, school board representatives, community members, and coaches, I developed a program that allowed students who competed in Special Olympics to earn a Varsity Letter/letterman jacket for our school. After about 8 months of developing guidelines and requirements for this program it was approved. About one year later, I received a call telling me that the first recipient of the letter would be Tanealya, who had been my partner in skiing and best friend for years. The year after I graduated, Mike, a Special Olympics athlete and special education student, was voted by the student body to be homecoming king.

If that doesn’t shout inclusion I don’t know what does.

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Is Your School Climate Inclusive? The Students Know!

Today we’re featuring a guest post from Teri Dary on school climate and inclusion. Teri has a wealth of experience as an educator and currently co-chairs SEANet Executive Board and works as the Service-Learning Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about making your school climate inclusive of all students, then you’ll definitely want to read on.   

Creating an inclusive school climate is important work. Conducting this work in the context of engaging youth in developing a shared vision is even more powerful. While adults can be effective in creating the conditions for an inclusive school, it is the youth who can bring those conditions to life. The tendency in our adult-centered world is to identify an issue we would like to address and then devise solutions we believe will help to alleviate the problem. The piece we miss is to partner with youth in the process.

Let’s take the issue of schools that are less inclusive than we would like them to be. If we turn only to the adults around us in analyzing and addressing these concerns, we might come up with solutions like changing lunch or class schedules, proving more opportunities for diverse students to interact, and teaching lessons on tolerance and acceptance.

But who is it that really knows the day-to-day realities of living and learning in the school? Who knows what it is like to walk down the halls and not know the names of your classmates because you don’t have classmates, clubs, or even friends in common? The only people in the school who really know how the social and academic worlds collide, who know how that impacts relationships, and who know what it feels like to be part of that culture are the students. If we are to really address the issues around creating an inclusive school climate, we absolutely need to meaningfully engage our youth in identifying, defining, and solving the challenges we face.

So what solutions might youth come up with that are any different than those adults have already thought of? My conversations with youth on this topic have opened my eyes to some pretty intriguing solutions. One student talked to me about feeling frustrated because he never has the opportunity to interact with students with intellectual disabilities because he takes all higher level classes. He wondered why we can’t have inclusive clubs in our schools, including such groups as Student Council and National Honor Society. Another asked why special education classrooms are located in the far corners of our schools, and why we can’t ensure that there are natural opportunities for students to interact between and within classes?

If we are to address inclusive school climate effectively, let’s engage youth in meaningful ways in the process. Adults don’t need to be the front of all knowledge and problem solvers of all that needs to be solved. Real change will happen when we partner with the amazing youth around us, give them the freedom to innovate and create, providing them with the skills, knowledge, and support they need to be successful along the way.

Courage to Make a Difference

Last month, Special Olympics Idaho staffer Laurie LaFollette had the opportunity to speak at the Congressional Award Ceremony in Idaho. The Congressional Award is given to young Americans between 14- and 23-years-old who set goals in four program areas: volunteer public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration. Ms. LaFollette spoke about the power of youth volunteerism and the ability for young people to make a difference in their community. Enjoy a portion of her moving speech below.

“Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve …you only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Everyone has the capacity to give and every person can make an impact in society, regardless of age, education or income.  I believe that giving is core to being human.

There are about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years old that make up 18 percent of the global population.  The global youth presents a significant force for good, and youth volunteerism can be part of the solution to many problems faced by the world.  Youth volunteerism contributes to social development and cultivates a caring generation.

At Special Olympics, we also recognize the power of youth.  We have a program called “Project UNIFY,” which is school-based program in the United States that will help Special Olympics become a leading cause among youth and develop the next generation of Special Olympics leaders.  Among the greatest values of the Special Olympics movement is its power to change attitudes of people who are fearful of, or misunderstand people with special needs.  This power is most effective in schools, among young people who have the potential to form an acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities that can last throughout their lives.  By engaging youth without intellectual disabilities, we are shaping future generations of tolerance and acceptance for all people.  Project UNIFY seeks to create a legion of young people who are leaders in their communities for Special Olympics and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities.

Young people, Like Soeren Palumbo, who at the age of 18 gave an eye opening speech against the word “retard” at his high school, and became a leader in the global movement to eliminate the use of the word, using the internet and social networking.  Palumbo, inspired by his sister who has an intellectual disability, is now taking that conversation to the campus of Notre Dame University, launching a global university-based volunteerism, advocacy and fundraising initiative called “SO College.”

I am so appreciative of the work and mission of the Congressional Award.  It provides an opportunity for empowering young people to take a greater responsibility for their own lives, to discover new talents, to advocate on behalf of others and to become a part of the community.  The Congressional Award also recognizes that it is our youth who have the idealism, courage and passion to make a difference.

You are being recognized today because you share a strong belief that you can make a difference.  You are leaders amongst your peers and you are in a position to also inspire your peers to become the best they can be.  Showing, that if given an opportunity, every person has the capacity to be successful and that human greatness is defined more by the spirit than the body.

I hope that by achieving the Congressional Award today that you have learned that you too are a champion, and to never limit what you can do and never give up on doing good.  Don’t let your age, your circumstances or anything you perceive to be a challenge, discourage you from taking that next step, to make a difference, to change the world one step at a time.  If you do this, we will be led to the moment written about by a French philosopher many years ago:

“Someday, after conquering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Finally, I say to the audience, if you despair of finding true role models in the human family, if you are tempted to believe that the quest for a better world is futile, look around you and see the faces of our Congressional Award winners here today.  You will see focus.  You will see the best in humanity.  You will see these faces and be refreshed.

Lessons of Acceptance from Hollywood

Within Special Olympics Project UNIFY, we’re constantly looking for ways to engage students (and teachers) in the classroom to become more inclusive and accepting of their peers. One of the best (and most exciting) ways to do this is to show positive examples of inclusion in our favorite movies and television shows.

Enter stage left, ‘Movies that Move’, a new partnership between Project UNIFY and Film Clips for Character Education.

Recently, Amanda Sechrist, an Adapted Physical Education teacher from Pennsylvania had the opportunity to share her experience with Project UNIFY and Movies that Move with a group of Middle School educators at the AMLE Conference. Here’s how she describes the educational film clips:

“Movies that Move are short movie clips that promote critical thinking and allow regular education students and special needs students to discuss inclusion, acceptance, the powers of words and youth leadership while building relationships with each other in the school environment.”

Movies that Move have not only allowed Ms. Sechrist to bring inclusionary practices into her classroom, but also helped her develop new ways to reach struggling general education students. After sharing the Movies that Move film clips with a classroom of at-risk youth, the students were inspired and wanted to pay it forward. They offered to volunteer and help Ms. Sechrist teach swimming lessons to the special education students in their school – an opportunity that has been exceptionally beneficial to all students involved!

So what does Movies that Move look like… Here’s a great clip with the theme ‘Different Abilities’. Sarah, a middle school student from Washington using Movies that Move in her classroom, says: “The wheelchair scene shows a different perspective. You are able to see what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. It really shows the message and does a good job of explaining it.”