Special Education Q&A

Schools Should Boost Inclusion of Students With Disabilities, Special Olympics Leader Says

By Evie Blad — January 24, 2024 6 min read
Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver greets a child at one of the organization’s events.
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The United States does more to ensure access to education for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities than many other countries—but the nation’s schools have work to do to ensure all students feel a sense of inclusion and belonging, said Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics.

“High-quality programs that imbue children with greater empathy and moral courage, support for teacher training and staff development, and rigorous measurement and evaluation of school culture and climate, as well as resources commensurate with the needs of communities, are all critical elements of the inclusive practices that usher in lasting change,” Shriver wrote in an open letter Wednesday.

That letter, written on the International Day of Education, provided a glimpse at the state of inclusion around the world. Among its findings: Only 16 countries refer to “inclusive education” in their education laws. The United States’ education laws do not explicitly mention inclusion, but laws that provide designated funding and protections for students with disabilities set it apart from the 25 percent of countries worldwide whose laws call for segregation of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Still, full social inclusion and belonging is not just a matter of laws and policies, Shriver said in an interview with Education Week. Special Olympics has stressed educational integration through efforts like its Unified Champion Schools program, in which leaders commit to forming integrated teams where students with and without disabilities play sports like volleyball and bocce ball to build relationships and trust.

Participating schools also commit to improving school climate to ensure students feel safe from bullying and harassment.

Shriver spoke to Education Week about why building more inclusive schools matters for all students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you kind of sum up the state of inclusion globally?

We’ve made progress, but we’re way way, way behind where most people think we are, and we’re certainly behind where we ought to be.

Most people don’t think there’s a crisis, but to children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, there is a crisis. Most people think children with intellectual disabilities go to school, but most of them don’t. Most people think that when kids are in the same school, they learn together, and build relationships together, and become friends together, but most don’t.

So, in some ways, this letter is trying to highlight a challenge that most people don’t even know exists. We’re not where we were, but we are not where we ought to be.

How do you define inclusion of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

A lot of people think of inclusion as physical proximity: If we are in the same building, or if we see each other in the halls, we have inclusion.

Our view of inclusion is much more focused on the social dimensions. This may sound idealistic, but does every child feel like they belong? Like they’re valued in the school? Now, you can say that’s a high bar. But that’s actually what most educators want. If you have children with intellectual disabilities in your school, and we hope you do, then chances are they feel like they’re being bullied, like they’re being excluded, like they’re not being welcomed to social occasions or sports or activities.

So it’s not just about tearing down barriers; it’s also about taking intentional, affirmative steps to build inclusion. How?

The first thing is we have to empower children who don’t have disabilities to become agents of inclusion. This can and should be a youth-led movement. I like to say that if you’re a 12-year-old with Down syndrome, and you’re in the lunch room, there’s only one person who can make you feel included and that’s not a cafeteria worker. It’s not a school administrator, not a social worker, not a special educator—it’s another 12-year-old.

We’ve done a large project with the Harvard Graduate School of Education that has identified what we call pillars of inclusive mindsets. Children who are inclusive are more likely to have high degrees of empathy, to value the dignity of all people, and are more likely to be able to take the perspective of others. These things can be taught.

Secondly, we need programs that bring kids together across ability levels, and this is where our Special Olympic programs work. Anybody can go out and kick a soccer ball for 20 minutes or shoot baskets or play bocce. We know that to be powerful in building a sense of seeing skill and giftedness of the other person, not a deficit.

Third, we need to challenge cultural norms we’ve seen in schools. We’ve got to create new norms where bullying backfires. It’s not funny. You don’t get power by being the biggest bully in the schools. And those kinds of school climate issues can be measured.

North America and Europe are among the continents with the most inclusive education policies. Does that mean the work is done here?

No. Look, if you talk to the parents of children with special needs, they will tell you today in North America, even with the support and assistance we have in place, that the system is incredibly burdensome, and has parents almost always feeling on their heels. By the age of 12, most children with intellectual and developmental disabilities have never been to a birthday party.

We have made great progress in this country, there’s no doubt about it. But the barrier that we face now is this, in a sense, the first and the last barrier. It’s the barrier of attitude, it’s the subtle stigma that these children matter less, don’t fit in, can’t perform, don’t matter.

This is going to require not just the protection of laws and policies, which we have in place in many respects, but also the proactive commitment of our families and our educators to educate a new generation to be inclusive.

Have you had any ‘aha’ moments about inclusion while visiting schools in the U.S.?

I have seen schools where kids are behaving in ways that I thought only only possible in the imagination. They’ve been so positive.

I was in Rhode Island at a Unified Champion school and a 16- or 17-year-old kid said, “Until I joined this Special Olympics team, I was afraid to talk to kids who were different. I didn’t know how to approach it. No one had shown me. And then all of a sudden, we’re just playing basketball together. The next thing I know, we’re going to the state championship. And the next thing I know, I looked around and the difference was gone.”

We often hear that a rising tide lifts all boats. Do these inclusion efforts help students without disabilities?

There’s no doubt that a safer school culture leads to higher test scores, and more welcoming school culture leads to higher attendance rates.

I was at a Unified Champion school in Nebraska a little while ago where a young woman got up and said, and in front of the entire school, “You know, last year, I didn’t want to come to school anymore. I was home, I had checked out, I was sort of giving up.” You could hear a pin drop. And then she looked across the gym at the unified team and said, “Then I got involved in this, and I met these athletes. I realized that there’s good in the world, that there’s something I can do to help it.”

And this is at 16 years old. Who knows where life would have taken her. Would she have dropped out? Struggled with mental illness? I don’t know. But I do know that she is a better student, a better learner, and a better classmate after participating.

It makes sense that, if our children see that they can make a difference in the life of someone else, that they’ll be more likely to want to make a difference in their own.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as Schools Should Boost Inclusion of Students With Disabilities, Special Olympics Leader Says

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