Opinion: Special Olympics make our schools better and our kids happier

Two teachers explain the positive changes made at their schools by the Special Olympics.

Varsity letters and a better world

The crowd roared as the final basket slipped almost effortlessly through the net. The players erupted into cheers as fans flooded the court. It was another “on-the-edge-of-your-seat” game and the students were alive with excitement. A memory teenagers across the country can relate to at some point. Well, not quite.

As incredible as these moments were, moments like this were too much for Robbie. He did not participate in the Special Olympics Unified Champion School (UCS) Program when he was a middle school student because of his sensitivity to loud noises and large crowds — two things guaranteed to exist in the gymnasium of championships basketball games.

To help Robbie cope with his sound sensitivity, he wore noise cancelling headphones and would steadily rock back and forth. I remember meeting Robbie’s parents and the way they spoke of their fear that their son would never be included in rites of passage of America’s public education system and childhood. As many of his peers were attending school dances and large school functions, Robbie remained at home. Well, not quite.

Since the inception of our Special Olympics Unified Champion School (UCS) Program at Ponaganset High School, we have witnessed a significant and positive shift in our school culture. While Robbie may best exemplify that shift, its effects are actually felt throughout the student body as well as faculty and staff. Unlike the negative stories you might hear about in the news about school culture and the end of civility, this school culture story is one of acceptance, inclusion, and respect. Unity began to blossom after the Special Olympics came to our school.

In retrospect, I couldn’t have known that what began as an exciting sports program for our students would evolve into a school-wide mission. Special Olympics UCSs don’t just help break down barriers — they do break down barriers. The Unified program spans a variety of sports and curricula and aids all students in their endeavors to learn and share the true meaning of inclusion throughout their lives. The program affords teachers the opportunity to educate future generations and teach our young leaders to be agents of change.

I am proud to share that the student who once needed noise cancelling headphones and support staff to be in close proximity at every school event in order to reassure him constantly that he was safe, is now the student running down the court full speed at a Unified Day game.

Robbie beams as he hears the crowd cheering his name and rising to their feet when he scores a basket. From this community, he senses safety and love by his peers, and it’s not only on the court, but throughout each day he attends Ponaganset High School. Now, in his senior year, Robbie is often found bundled up at hockey games and cheering in the stands at football games with a remarkable smile on his face surrounded by his friends. He is quite there.

As an educator, one can only hope that what is taught in the classroom extends beyond those walls. To say that our students are leaders and that they empower each other would be a vast understatement — the truth is, they strive to go above and beyond. Our students have learned that it takes courage to advocate for those who may be unable to advocate for themselves. That it takes strength of character to act as a role model with an unwavering sense of empathy and compassion.

READ MORE: Student Reporting Labs’ “Inclusive leadership opportunities through Special Olympics”

Fifty years ago, the parents of students with intellectual disabilities, students like Robbie, had dreams for them, but most could never have imagined that one day they would sit in the crowded bleachers of a high school gym cheering them on. My students put on their jerseys and wear their well-earned varsity letters and refuse to be labeled. Putting on that jersey reinforces what they are capable of, and encourages them to push themselves past limitations and expectations that society has unfairly placed upon them.

It is my hope that people will be able to see their community in ours. That they will be able to recognize their children in our children. And that they will be able to feel the same pride and love that we feel in our community. I understand that Ponaganset High School is simply my “corner of the world” to care for, but I believe that if we nurtured and protected our “corners of the world” a little more, we would truly be a united nation. Working together with programs like the Special Olympics, we would also build a better world. Together we can ignite an inclusion revolution.

— By Jennifer Paolantonio, special education teacher at Ponaganset High School, North Scituate, Rhode Island

‘Changing the lives of all students’

Do you remember where your peers with intellectual disabilities ate lunch? Where they learned? What they did for fun? Could they beat you on the basketball court?

For most of us, the answer is no.

But on a recent Sunday morning, my family and I were on line at the farmer’s market when my teenage daughter exclaimed, “I see my friends! I’ll be back.”

There was a group of students laying out on a blanket listening to music and eating ice cream, a scenario familiar to many parents, but it looks a little different than most would picture. You see, next to the blanket filled with teens sits a wheelchair. One of the teens is helping her friend eat ice cream with a spoon because he physically needs assistance. The rest of the group is made up of teenagers with and without intellectual disabilities; those around do not bat an eye and don’t seem to think this scene is anything out of the ordinary. It’s this knowledge that makes my heart fill with joy. That no one seemed to notice or think anything different about this group of teens just hanging out, enjoying life.

I know all of the kids from my school, because I am their Special Olympics Unified Coach.

Special Olympics first changed the lives of students with intellectual disabilities by giving them a place to play sports, to compete, to recognize their own strengths and abilities. The Special Olympics program, Unified Champion Schools (UCS), is changing the lives of all students, the campus culture and communities. It has created a space for students with and without intellectual disabilities to work, create, learn, play and lead together.

READ MORE: Student Reporting Labs’ “Special Olympics champion most at home on the court”

Contrary to negative misconceptions about the younger generation that I often read about, the youth I know are dedicated and passionate. They are true change agents. They value each other’s strengths and are not afraid to think outside the box to work around a few barriers. Sometimes, the barriers can be related to their disability, more often, they are related to outdated perceptions and systems.

I see the happiness it brings, not only to the students with disabilities, but the difference it has made to the lives of their friends without disabilities. I see children grow into young adults who are braver and kinder. I see young adults who don’t look away when someone looks or sounds different. Instead, they look at the person, smile and say hello. I often wonder to myself, how different would our country look right now if we had had more of these experiences along the way?

— By Erika Guerrero, special education teacher at Alamo Heights High School, San Antonio, Texas

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