This is so cool!! I had the real privilege of attending a conference this week for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools (UCS) . UCS is a model that brings together the power of Special Olympics with inclusion in the athletic, social, and student leadership efforts of schools in incredibly powerful ways to benefit all students. They have three primary areas of focus – Unified Sports (often interscholastic competitions of unified teams made up of players with and without intellectual disabilities), Inclusive Student Leadership (meaningful leadership of social and school change efforts toward a more inclusive school climate), and Whole School Engagement – and extensive resources for each area.
But think about what this sign means. “Changing the world is a contact sport.” How true! It is only through relationships, relationships, relationships (or, in this instance, contact, contact, contact) that we create a more inclusive, more respectful, safer environment in which we all live, learn, and play.
Let me tell you, the examples – powerful and yet in some ways so simple – that I got to witness this week were all about relationships between and among children and youth and the adults in their lives. I wish each and every one of you could have been in the auditorium at Lexington High School outside Columbia, South Carolina, on Wednesday when, for the first time ever in the state, athletes with intellectual disabilities received varsity athletics letters for their participation on school-based Unified Sports teams. Varsity athletic letters. Cheered on by nearly the whole student body. What a simple, but powerful, way to recognize and include true athletes in the culture of the school.
Later that same evening conference participants had dinner together and enjoyed a performance by a unified band. Five high school guys – two on electric guitar, two on bass guitar, and one on the drums – rocking out and loving every minute of it. The fact that one of them had an intellectual disability was irrelevant to their shared love of music. When you have a unified garage band, you are clearly doing something right in your school culture!
I hope I’ve convinced you that I am in awe of what I’ve seen, but I’m more than a spectator. I deeply believe that everything we at Operation Respect offer to schools to create safe and caring environments can feed the process of developing a stronger UCS. Activities that encourage the healthy expression of feelings, the value of building community, the learning of skills that help students to resolve conflict, and the exploration of our kaleidoscopic diversity, in my opinion, can support exactly the goals UCS have for their communities and that becoming a Unified Champion School could be the perfect next step for a school which has been using our Don’t Laugh at Me curriculum.
That is the power of relationships to change the world. Game on, indeed.