The initiative is made possible by the U.S. Department of Education-supported Project UNIFY, launched in 2008 to activate young people with and without intellectual disabilities as agents of change. The goal is to foster respect, dignity and welcome in their schools and communities.
The discussion brought together top leaders from education, business, government, sports and media to share expertise and insights. Their work is helping charter next steps for replacing pity, cruelty, indifference and ignorance with respect, acceptance and meaningful inclusion for all students in equitable, safe and nurturing school environments--promoting academic achievement and social development. Participants committed to defining a broader perspective on school and district-wide models of inclusion that involve a partnership between non-governmental organizations and public schools, while addressing the need to mobilize the nation to promote compassion and understanding for everyone.
“We’re challenging the country to think differently about young people and their role in creating, not listening to and receiving knowledge, and about people with special needs and their ability to lead and contribute, not their need for support and help,” said Shriver. “It’s a huge challenge, a generational challenge, and it’s critical for young people to be in leadership roles to help create communities where the social norms are inclusiveness and acceptance.”
As host, First Lady Sally Ganem stated, “As a ‘recovering’ educator these issues are near and dear to my heart. I look forward to working with all of you as we move an education agenda forward that creates universally positive environments for all students – not just here in Nebraska, but across the country.”
In a special video message shown to participants, United States Education Secretary, Arne Duncan said:
“Special Olympics is about so much more than athletics, its about providing all participants with an opportunity to engage with children different than they are…I’m proud that my department is supporting Project UNIFY. Working with schools across the country, Project UNIFY is creating school climates of inclusion, acceptance and respect for all students.”
Compelled by the Roundtable discussions, Youth Service America announced a new partnership with Special Olympics to offer grants to young people with and without intellectual disabilities to combat obesity amongst their peers to be launched as part of their Semester of Service.
Participants also agreed that next steps begin with the promotion of authentic inclusion as a priority for leading associations and coalitions dedicated to civic and social justice in education; increased corporate engagement to train and hire people with intellectual disability; dedicated communications and media awareness campaigns to raise the public consciousness surrounding this issue; and, integration into national education reform initiatives such as dropout prevention, service-learning, social emotional learning and school climate.