Combined Talents

 An inspiring poem from Joe Olivo, Grade 11, Narragansett High School in Rhode Island

Spreading the word to end the word.
Playing together as one whole unit.
Making lifelong friends.
Feeling strong.
Cohesiveness is key.
Splendid season.
Sending a positive message.
Everyone on the same page.
Working together.
The more we play the stronger we become.
Changing attitudes and opening up minds.
The future looks bright.
Spreading the word to end the word.

And check out a great Spread the Word to End the Word video from the 2014 Narragansett High School Unified Sports Basketball Team.

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Inclusion for All: Fact or Fantasy?

The following guest blog comes from Megan Clodi, a special education teacher at Mt. Vernon Township High School in Illinois. Mrs. Clodi is also the Director of Special Olympics programming at her school. 

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and get ready to imagine a scenario. The scene begins with a gymnasium built in the 1930’s filled to the brim with rich high school basketball tradition overflowing with stories of championships won, hall of famers inducted, and decades of sweat and tears from losses and wins. Now listen to the thud on the caramel wooden floor of the cheerleaders landing their tumbling stunts. The drum line thunders their tune and the band strikes up a fight song. Every seat in Changnon Gymnasium is filled with students and teachers. When will the game begin? No Varsity Basketball game will be played right now at 9am on this brisk Friday morning. Instead, this is the scene at the Mt. Vernon Township High School school-wide assembly.

This assembly is unique because it is a RALLY . . . a rally to Spread the Word to End the Word! Mt. Vernon Township High School is a culturally diverse school located in the heart of Southern Illinois and comprised of roughly 1,300 students from 13 feeder schools. The campus sprawls 11 buildings on two full city blocks. Three times a year students come together for assemblies to celebrate student involvement and success in sports and in other extra-curricular activities. This particular assembly is similar but has a unique feature, one of which . . . SILENCE. Never before has the entire student body quieted themselves during an assembly.

A parent stands at the podium and explains how ALL of her children are competitive and participate in a wide array of activities . . . including her daughter, who has an intellectual disability. She shares how her other children feel and react when their friends use the R-word (retarded) in haphazard and derogatory ways. Subsequently, the School Resource Officer describes the Polar Plunge fundraiser to benefit Special Olympics and why he supports the athletes. Two students gather their guitars and play their original acoustic song that won first place in the Mt. Vernon’s Got Talent competition to benefit Special Olympics. Next, the student Editor of the Vernois Yearbook takes the microphone to issue a call to action for his classmates to stop using the r-word. A tall-framed woman with a familiar face steps to the microphone. This face is aired into homes during the sports segment on the local news. During her speech, she details that over her years of experience competing in sports and reporting sporting events, the athletes that have emblazoned a lasting impression on her heart is the MVTHS Special Olympics athletes. Lastly, a Special Olympics athlete bravely stands before his classmates and honestly opens up as he tells everyone that over the years he has been called retarded and routinely been made fun of. His feelings and raw emotion is bared for all to hear the pain he endured. At the end, he implores his classmates and all adults present to use helpful words instead of hurtful words . . . achingly to STOP using the R-word. Never has silence been so loud.

The SILENCE hangs thickly in the air until the basketball theme-music, “Put it on the Line”, plays over the sound-system as the team gathers in the lobby. The excitement builds and every single person jumps to their feet to clap. The starting line-up is announced and the team takes the floor. Which team? The first-ever MVTHS Special Olympics Basketball Team takes the floor and basks in the delight of the standing ovation. The team sets up on the floor and the ball is tossed into the air for the starting tip-off!

Now open your eyes.

Time to decide . . . is this fact or fantasy? How about at your school?

If it can be a reality at Mt. Vernon Township High School, it can be reality at your school, too!

Project UNIFY is About People

The following post is from Kara Fleming, an intern with Project UNIFY who spent her summer focused on the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.

There I was, fresh out of high school, vying for an internship in Washington, D.C., as an incoming college freshmen from middle-of-nowhere, Idaho. The odds were stacked but someone must have seen something in me they liked, because before I knew it, I was an intern for Special Olympics International.

It ended up being more than I ever could’ve dreamed. The city itself was amazing, and having the job in the first place was incredible, but it wasn’t until the last day that I finally put my finger on what made this summer so amazing.

It was the people.

  • People like my bosses who took a leap of faith and believed that a young girl from Idaho could succeed working for an international organization in a huge city;
  • People like my co-workers around the office who respectfully treated me and the other interns as colleagues worthy of respect, instead of just obnoxious college kids;
  • People like the Wright Family, who poured their hearts (and musical talents) into the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign for the sake of inclusion for all;
  • People like Ben and Terrel, athletes that work in the office, who break down stereotypes and barriers by their amazing work ethic and smiles that they freely give to everyone they meet;
  • And, people like my roommates, who despite our radical differences in personality, philosophies, and geographical location, strove to include me and truly turn our group of interns into a family.

All these people truly embody the mission of Special Olympics and Project UNIFY. I learned more from watching this amazing group for two months than I ever could’ve if I’d had the same internship at another office. I learned that first and foremost, it is people like this who make Special Olympics what it is, and it is by focusing on them that the organization is able to have such an amazing impact. Every decision is made with people in mind. How can we make it a better experience for our athletes? How are we promoting respect, dignity, and inclusion? How are we creating an inclusive environment everywhere from the workplace to the playing field to the streets of cities across the world?

These people are just a sample of the people involved in the movement. There are many more like them, but these in particular are the ones who poured their time and energy into making me feel like a part of the Special Olympics staff, even if it was just for a summer. They are the reason why I will never forget this internship and why I can’t wait to continue being involved in Special Olympics.

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels:

The Road to Respect

Recycle, race, respect, rejoice, relax, reject…

The list of “r-words” could go on forever, but in the eyes of any person associated with Special Olympics, there is one “r-word” that is not quite like the rest. This R-word alone has the power to take someone from happy to sad in a matter of seconds, the power to hurt, discriminate and stereotype. This R-word has the power to change lives.

This R-word is the word “retard/retarded.”

To a lot of people, March 7, 2012 felt like a normal Wednesday, but anyone in the Special Olympics family knows it was so much more than just a normal day. It was a day to promote acceptance, inclusion and respect for individuals with intellectual disabilities and spread awareness about everything our Special Olympics athletes can achieve in this world.

It was the Spread the Word to End the Word day!

The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign was started in 2009 by two youth, and is now celebrated across the world. Starting as a campaign to eliminate the use of the R-word, the campaign has grown into so much more, and is changing the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

I have hosted and observed campaigns for the last three years. Over those three years, the campaign and the responses towards our efforts have changed so much!

The first year the campaign was done, it is safe to say that there was a lot of resistance. Many people argued that it was their “freedom of speech” to use any word that they wanted, and that they weren’t directing it at those with disabilities. The second year gained more attention and positive responses, but this year was the most amazing year yet! This year, we made a huge leap towards social acceptance for all. Although I only got to attend two R-word campaigns this year, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign was everywhere!

When I logged onto my Facebook on Wednesday, the amount of videos, blogs, stories, and posts about the campaign was amazing! I was receiving blast emails and texts all day, but things people were saying about the campaign wasn’t what was had been said in the past; they were no longer the normal “do not use the r-word,” but rather “individuals with intellectual disabilities are just like you and me. They deserve the same respect that everyone else does, so please think before you speak.”

When we ask people to sign the pledge to stop using the R-word, we aren’t simply asking people to not use a word, we are asking people to change their mind-sets. We are asking them to accept differences, embrace those with disabilities, and unite in a world of social acceptance.

This year, the real meaning behind the campaign was finally understood. With over 286,000 pledges so far, this campaign has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. The road to respect might not be an easy road, but with all of the amazing strength from the athletes, support from their families, and guidance from volunteers, as a family of Special Olympics, we WILL make it there!

Live a Life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE

For the past 6 years I have been highly involved with Special Olympics and Partners Club, an inclusive club where students with and without intellectual disabilities can come together for sports training and competition.

It all started the first few weeks of High School … There may be a few guys out there that can relate, but I first got involved with Special Olympics when a pretty girl asked me to come to a lunchtime meeting at school. Of course I said yes! But little did I know that lunchtime meeting would end up changing the way I look at life and ultimately change how I look at other people.

At East Anchorage High School in Anchorage, AK I was immersed in a very diverse school atmosphere, with students coming from all different ethnic backgrounds, so naturally I was used to seeing different people around the hallway. Partners Club, however, showed me how fun life can be when you treat people with RESPECT! My first year in Partners Club I was part of a group of students who enjoyed interacting at lunch, practicing sports after school, and competing in high level sports competition. While that may seem like a pretty typical group of students, it was better because we were all about inclusion and making sure people felt accepted.

Besides the sports aspect of our Partners Club, we also ran a daily Espresso Shop. We had students with and without intellectual disabilities making drinks, taking orders, running the cash machine, and interacting with our customers. This inclusive coffee shop offered an opportunity to showcase our club — showing our student body how much fun we had together and emulating what friendship truly looks like when you recognize people for their abilities rather than their disabilities.

In the following years of high school I was a part of a movement of young leaders that wanted to see change in the school atmosphere  (and did!). Every week we held meetings, made announcements over the school system PA and wore our Partner’s Club tie-dye t-shirts on Tuesdays; we even hosted Spread the Word to End the Word campaigns to eliminate the R-word from our campus. Seeing teachers and students in the hall wearing tie-dye was amazing – everyone wanted one because they knew the t-shirts represented RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE.

When I went to college at Washington State University, I was welcomed with open arms and held a weeklong Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in my first year. I also hosted a three-day bowling event with Special Olympics athletes and WSU athletes (our school’s quarterback even showed up because his friends told him it was fun)!

In my second year at the University, the head coach of the University Bowling Team became a volunteer coach for my unified bowling team and offered to host a bowling tournament with the WSU student athletes from other sports teams. Finally after working with the WSU athletics department they decided they wanted to host the Special Olympics Washington East Region Basketball Tournament at our school!

These are just a few examples of how an inclusive school atmosphere can truly change the way students; teachers, administrators, and community members treat people inside and outside school. In the last six years Special Olympics has been an instrumental part in my life and I hope you too will embrace the movement, live a life of RESPECT and ACCEPTANCE and benefit from positive interactions with everyone you meet.

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.