Special Olympics

Inclusive Mindsets and Skillsets through Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools Highly Ranked

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

Inclusion is the issue of our time. In an increasingly diverse world, the skillsets and mindsets to constructively engage those who are different are urgently needed. A future where stigma and exclusion no longer plague the marginalized requires a generational tipping point in development of these skills, beginning in schools.To meet this urgency, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools has been developed as an evidence-based, co-curricular intervention convening students with and without intellectual disabilities to develop inclusive mindsets and skillsets through sport, leadership development, and community engagement. This is executed in partnership between local and national education authorities and Special Olympics, a global organization present in 190+ countries with 50 years of experience creating attitudinal change towards the most historically marginalized: people with intellectual disabilities.This project will reach local, national, and global tipping points to normalize inclusion through expanding Unified Champion Schools and deepening research understanding of inclusive mindsets.

Problem Statement

Inclusion is the issue of our time. In the future, the world will be judged by whether we are able to achieve progress for both the mainstream and the marginalized. Young people with intellectual disabilities are among those most underserved by education systems globally, perpetuating the discrimination they face in developed and developing nations alike. Children with ID are the least likely to access inclusion in education systems . Of the 65 million primary school-age children out of school globally, close to half have disabilities. Even of those students that do achieve access, some estimate less than 5% of children with disabilities complete school. Despite the magnitude of these disparities, governments and the global development community have not yet responded with a proportional amount of resources and attention. Development Finance International found that only about 40% of low and middle-income countries have specific budget allocations for children with disabilities or special education. Mindsets perpetuate this exclusion. The second most cited barrier to inclusion, after lack of data, is negative attitudes towards disability. This exclusion has high costs not only morally, but also economically. The ILO estimates price of exclusion of persons with disabilities at 3-7% of GDP in Low and Middle Income Countries. Finally, by depriving mainstream students the opportunity to learn from peers with disabilities, we are also denying them the chance to develop critical soft skills such as empathy, patience, communication, and working across differences. The social emotional skills are essential for success in our increasingly globalized world.

Solution Overview

Inclusion is not just a state of being. It is a mindset comprised of a set of skills and behaviors. The most significant barriers to inclusion of children with ID are negative attitudes, i.e. stigma, and a lack of meaningful data. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools (UCS) serves as a platform to address both of these barriers. Unified Champion Schools is an evidence-based co-curricular program shown to break down barriers and change attitudes towards students with ID through inclusive sports, youth leadership development, and school community engagement. Through this programming, UCS creates socially inclusive school environments that are critical to overcoming exclusion for students with intellectual disabilities as well as developing social emotional learning skills in all students. After over a decade of successful implementation in the United States (where UCS programming is in 7,000+ schools) and promising initial pilots in several other countries, Special Olympics is ready to scale UCS globally. To ensure cultural fit and account for differences in local education structures, this grant will focus support not on exporting a US-centric model but rather on building national UCS centers of excellence in several geographic regions (e.g., Africa, Eurasia, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America). Through strategic, targeted investment, these countries will develop best practices and materials needed to further expand the programming in nearby countries. Concurrently, an emphasis on research and evaluation will drive data collection to better understand the situation of children with ID in schools, how to build inclusive mindsets, and document progress towards SDG 4.

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Project Funders

  • Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education 2008 - 2019
  • Stavros Niarchos Foundation 2018 - 2021
  • FWD Group 2018 - 2020

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