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Special Olympics Project Unify: Students standing up for justice

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Charles C. Haynes
August 14, 2010

When kids begin the school day by reciting “with liberty and justice for all,” does all really mean all—including people with intellectual disabilities?


That was the question asked by 136 young people from across America—students with and without intellectual disabilities—who gathered in Omaha in July to organize for school communities where no one is invisible and everyone has a voice.


The Youth Activation Summit in Nebraska was organized by Project Unify, a new initiative of Special Olympics designed to empower youth to work for just and inclusive schools—places where every student is included in all aspects of school life: academic, extracurricular and social.


If your image of Special Olympics is just fun and games, take a closer look.


While thousands of athletes took the field in nearby Lincoln, young leaders from all 50 states and the District of Columbia met to devise strategies for bringing about change in their local schools and communities. Many came from school districts where students with intellectual disabilities are still marginalized, excluded from many activities and often called names.


Some of these students are already involved in Project Unify’s “spread the word to end the word” campaign—a nationwide, youth-led effort to end the use of the “r-word.” In some schools, early success in making the r-word socially unacceptable has inspired students to go beyond changing language to advocate for greater inclusion.


As with every significant movement for social justice in American history, Special Olympics Project Unify is the First Amendment in action. Students in high schools across the country are exercising their constitutional rights by speaking out against unfair school policies, using media to promote their cause, and assembling together to petition for change.


The student leaders meeting in Omaha modeled what they’re asking schools to do. Kids with and without intellectual disabilities worked side by side. Every voice was heard, and every person was treated with fairness and respect.


I confess that when Special Olympics invited me to participate in the Omaha conference, I was somewhat skeptical about how well the “unify” in Project Unify would work in practice. But seeing is believing.


At one point during the conference, I was asked by students to sit in a “fishbowl” to help lead a discussion of social justice and the First Amendment. For the uninitiated, the fishbowl activity involves a few people—in this case two teens and me—discussing an issue with an empty chair available so anyone in the audience can join the conversation at any time.


And join they did. Students of all abilities took the chair to ask questions about working for change, to share how hurt they are when called names, and to point out how unfair it is to be excluded from school activities or isolated from other kids. Then, in the next session, they huddled at their tables to come up with ideas for how to change things back home.


“We have learned,” wrote students in one group, “that when people work together for an important cause, they can and will succeed. We must never give up.”


As I quickly discovered in the fishbowl, Special Olympics Project Unify is not about “serving” students with intellectual disabilities; it’s about empowering them.


Ensuring that people with intellectual and other disabilities are full participants in the life of our schools and communities is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. As has been the case so often in our history, young people are speaking up—and leading the way.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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