Across Tanzania, students with intellectual disabilities have traditionally attended either separate special schools or mainstream schools that also serve students without disabilities. Although the mainstream schools provide a degree of physical inclusion, the absence of social interaction between the groups of students has continued. Meanwhile, the daily reality for students who attend special schools is an environment of complete separation, both physical and social.
That reality shifted when Special Olympics Tanzania introduced Unified Schools to cities and towns across the country. Over the course of the past two years, through the power of the Play Unified: Learn Unified initiative, Special Olympics Tanzania has trained over 700 teachers and coaches, providing them the tools and knowledge to bring students together by using sport as the change agent.
One of the teachers leading the way is Deogratis, a physical education teacher from Dodoma, Tanzania. Deogratis always had a passion for seeing his students succeed in sport, but he recognized that a portion of the school population was being left out. Students with intellectual disabilities were not provided the same sporting opportunities that were offered to the students without disabilities. When Special Olympics Tanzania came to Dodoma and offered training in Unified Sports, Deogratis felt it might hold the answer and eagerly enrolled. Through the training, he realized that “the majority of society doesn’t understand the essence of Unified” and that it is his role as a teacher and coach to bring inclusion to the broader community.
Deogratis knew that lasting societal change must begin with young people, so he turned to his students. From the training provided by Special Olympics Tanzania, Deogratis understood that he could “provide unique attention to the needs of students with disabilities and could provide them with training based on their abilities.” Equipped with new skills, these young people would be able to shine, and other people would be able to see their abilities instead of their disabilities.
After weeks of Unified Sports practice, Deogratis noticed a change. His students were kinder and more understanding of each other. Responding to their common love of sport, students with and without disabilities found opportunities to connect even when not on the playing field. These connections created a change in Deogratis, too; he is now a fierce advocate for his students with disabilities and understands the importance of facilitating inclusion through coaching.
Deogratis is committed to training more teachers across the country and sharing the true essence of Unified. Play Unified: Learn Unified will continue to assist coaches across Tanzania in making their classrooms and sports teams stand out as spaces of bravery and inclusion.