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Global Leaders Falling Short on Commitments to Create More Inclusive Schools and Communities, Says Special Olympics

Disability-inclusive education requires more research and data to implement more effective policies Special Olympics' first annual letter from Dr. Timothy Shriver on the global state of inclusion in education highlights worldwide disparities
Young children sitting in a group on a gym floor.

[WASHINGTON, D.C., 24 JANUARY 2024]—Coinciding with the International Day of Education, Special Olympics today issued an appeal for governments and communities around the globe to commit to bold legislative, policy and funding commitments in support of inclusive learning environments for students with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Timothy Shriver, Chair of Special Olympics, highlighted the benefits of more inclusive education systems in the organization’s first public letter on the “Global State of Inclusion in Education,” challenging policymakers to address the glaring disparities that prevent equitable access to quality education for students with intellectual disabilities. Shriver underscored how the organization’s Unified Champion Schools® program creates better learning outcomes for both students with and without intellectual disabilities.

The letter from Special Olympics comes in response to the worldwide disparity in data with respect to the education of young people with intellectual disabilities. This lack of data impedes effective policymaking and research in support of disability-inclusive education. Moving forward, Special Olympics will release such letters annually to track progress, inaction and backsliding with respect to inclusion in education.

Notably, Special Olympics research cited in the letter finds that Europe, North America and Oceania have the greatest number of disability-inclusive education policies, with over 50 percent of countries employing education policies that emphasize inclusion in each region. East and Southeast Asia, on the other hand, have the most progress to make in establishing inclusive education systems, with only 6 percent of countries in the region having adopted legislation to promote inclusive education.

Dr. Shriver states: “The global state of inclusion in education in 2023 was a mixed bag. Some governments made modest progress in advancing more inclusive practices in their education systems. But far too few countries had laws on their books mandating inclusive schools, and even fewer countries had policies translating those mandates into sustainable practices. In the end, schools very rarely had the resources necessary to implement an education model that is truly inclusive.

“This is why Special Olympics began developing programming that would permit young people to lead their peers and their schools in creating Special Olympics Unified Sports® teams, while simultaneously challenging their schools to make inclusion a part of everything they do. After years of evolution and challenging first steps, the first wave of 600 Unified Champion Schools (UCS) launched across the U.S. in 2008. Over 15 years later, there are over 30,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in 152 countries that reach approximately one million students. Over the next three years, Special Olympics plans to expand the UCS program to reach over two million students in 150,000 schools in 180 countries.”

A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study found that students worldwide faced significant learning loss over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic—a crisis which has hit students with disabilities particularly hard. According to the Global Partnership for Education's Secretariat, one of the most cited barriers to the education of children with disabilities is widely-held discriminatory attitudes toward children with disabilities. Special Olympics seeks to lower these barriers by creating shared experiences among young people of all abilities, thereby fostering fundamental shifts in their mindsets.

For decades, Special Olympics has cultivated a theory and practice of inclusion that celebrates differences and harnesses individual and collective strengths to foster learning settings that are characterized by acceptance, understanding and appreciation of others. The mission is simple; by teaching children to play together, they can learn, grow and ultimately thrive together. The emerging evidence on these shared experiences reveals that they are transformative to young people’s development because they contribute to what is called an “inclusive mindset.” An inclusive mindset motivates people to reach out to others different than themselves because it equips them with the skills, beliefs and behaviors that make being inclusive achievable and rewarding. Most importantly, an inclusive mindset goes beyond how one thinks and feels to empowering the individual to risk their own social standing to be an upstander for others, even though such behavior might lead to stigma or social ridicule.

Research clearly underscores the power of inclusive mindsets in education. “What we know from the research is that the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program has a powerful and positive impact on students and schools—fostering inclusive mindsets and learning communities,” said Dr. Jackie Jodl, Chief, Global Youth and Education of Global Youth and Education at Special Olympics. “As any educator knows, the more inclusive the school, the richer the learning environment.”

Special Olympics’ signature UCS program seeks to engage students of all abilities through sports competitions, clubs, student organizations and activities. This model creates opportunities for young people with and without intellectual disabilities to learn from one another by building friendships that bridge differences. Research demonstrates that all students benefit from this inclusive model, with measurable results for students both with and without disabilities—from an improved sense of community to better reading and math scores.

The Special Olympics letter on the “Global State of Inclusion in Education” follows the organization’s 2023 call for governments to dedicate a minimum of 3 percent of their national education budgets to increase social inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities. Last summer, Special Olympics also announced the formation of the Global Leadership Coalition for Inclusion, a pioneering multilateral effort, comprising governments, industry, philanthropy and the development community, to increase inclusive practices in education and sport, and create more inclusive schools and communities.

About Special Olympics

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics is a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. We foster acceptance of all people through the power of sport and programming in education, health, and leadership. With nearly four million athletes and Unified Sports® partners and one million coaches and volunteers in more than 170 countries, Special Olympics delivers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and nearly 50,000 games and competitions every year. Engage with us on: X, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn. Learn more at SpecialOlympics.org.

About Special Olympics Global Center for Inclusion in Education

The Global Center for Inclusion in Education serves as a hub for global thought leadership for inclusive education through research, policy, and programming. Its mission is dedicated to the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in academic, sport, social, and community activities.

Media Contact

Jonathan Schillace

Special Olympics International
Director, Global Youth & Education Communications
+1-720-252-7356