For the past few years, Special Olympics Thailand has partnered with local universities to offer Youth Activation programs. Through these programs, university students implement projects that advocate for inclusion in schools, assist people with intellectual disabilities, and promote acceptance. When the partnership process started, participants in Special Olympics Thailand's Youth Activation program consisted solely of university students studying special education and physical education, and many of their “activations” consisted of sports- and play-related programs.
Over the past year, however, Special Olympics Thailand has spread the message of inclusion to students who may not otherwise have an opportunity to engage with people with intellectual disabilities, bringing in new and diverse ideas for youth engagement. Recently, empowered by the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), Special Olympics Thailand invited students from the Business Computer Science department of Lampang Rajabhat University to participate in the Youth Activation program. Many of these students did not have previous experience working with Special Olympics or people with intellectual disabilities, and they expressed doubts about their ability to meaningfully contribute to the Youth Activation program.
Tossapol Tansakul, national coordinator for Special Olympics Thailand’s Building Communities program, understood the university students’ concerns but assured them that if they give the program a chance, they will be successful. Mr. Tansakul told the prospective Youth Leaders that any form of community engagement can change the lives of people both with and without intellectual disabilities and convinced the students that “anyone with any talent and skill can become a part of Special Olympics and work together to help our athletes.”
Through coordination with the Business Computer Science department, 27 Youth Leaders from Lampang Rajabhat University have joined the Youth Activation program. Over the past few months, they’ve applied their academic skills to create a set of 2-D animation learning tools via digital multimedia—an innovative learning development tool for the over 60 people with ID who attend the nearby Lampang Special Education Center. The program provides many of the Youth Leaders, such as Chutipol, with their first experiences in working with and learning about the challenges people with intellectual disabilities face in Thai society. “I [had] never joined any Special Olympics Thailand Program before [the Youth Activation program]. I [had] no experience interacting with any people with ID,” said Chutipol.
Chutipol and the other Youth Leaders use Special Olympics-provided learning development tools to teach students with intellectual disabilities life skills that help them become more independent and socially adaptive. These tools—which cover issues such as safeguarding, morality, self-care and personal hygiene, social roles, and self-sufficiency—are artfully and cleverly designed to encourage students with intellectual disabilities to develop an interest in spending more time learning. Using color, movement, and sound, the tools capture the attention of the students who attend the Center—most of whom are between 5 and 20 years old—and help them focus on their learning tasks.
Naphasin Duangprapha, Deputy Director of Lampang Special Education Center, noted that these tools have the potential not only to help people with intellectual disabilities integrate more into society but also to help others recognize the full humanity and dignity of people with intellectual disabilities.
“Each and every person with disabilities can develop and improve their abilities, given the chance to learn. Therefore, [every] learning opportunity, however small, can and will help people with disabilities. All of our students here have the same right to be served and educated as [do] any other students in the country.”
The implementation of Special Olympics Thailand’s Youth Activation program also benefits the lives of the participating Youth Leaders. Thanks to the program, Youth Leaders are becoming more aware and accepting of people with intellectual disabilities, and the hands-on experience of providing a program bolsters their confidence in their ability to participate in inclusion advocacy. “The most significant lesson that I have learnt is about how to include people with intellectual disabilities in our society...All the children with intellectual disabilities that we have met, each of them has very different...need[s] and social character[s]. We have to develop different motivation[s] for each person. It is challenging but also fun,” said Youth Leader Chutipol.
The news of the program success at Lampang Rajabhat University has spread to other areas of the country. Six different universities across Thailand are now on board and have committed to undertake similar projects this year. Special Olympics Thailand hopes its enthusiasm will help promote further expansion to other universities, addressing the goal of having Youth Activation programs and their message of inclusion be sustainably passed down from university senior students to new students each year.
The Youth Activation program meaningfully improves the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and provides university students with hands-on, problem-solving experiences that cannot be found in the classroom. Furthermore, Mr. Tansakul shared that these students are the next generation that will become society’s leaders, and they will be aware of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities in society.
“The experiences and reflection that they gain from joining the Youth Activation program will help towards their career and personal goals. Having the new generation’s understanding of people with intellectual disabilities will create more acceptance in society in the future,” he said.