Special Olympics values the many ways youth help the organization spread its mission of inclusion in schools and everyday life. When young people with and without intellectual disabilities come together through sports and other educational activities, they are not only geared up to promote a world where people of all abilities are embraced, but they also can influence their families, teachers, and community leaders to overcome any prior misconceptions about intellectual disabilities that prevented inclusion in their respective cities and towns. Youth are vital in breaking down barriers.
Special Olympics Bharat understands these concepts well. A country as populous as India presents ample opportunities to connect with the next generation of leaders. Recently, 150 Youth Leaders from 17 states across the country gathered in the capital city of New Delhi for India’s National Youth Leadership Summit. As the first such gathering since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the four-day event connected seasoned veterans of Special Olympics programming and newcomers alike to share, learn, and collaborate with one another.
The summit was organized by a team of 15 Youth Leaders of all abilities who also led each day’s numerous sessions. Aman, a Unified partner from the state of Punjab, was a member of the summit’s organizing team. It was his first in-person leadership activity with Special Olympics. His role in helping to plan the event inspired him to be a more proactive and educated leader for inclusion in his community. “The National Youth Leadership Summit was absolutely moving and helped me understand [Special Olympics Bharat] athletes and their needs in more detail. . . . Before the summit I had only interacted with athletes online or through calls. The summit presented an opportunity [for me] to learn and [also] unlearn various things about people with intellectual disabilities,” recalls Aman.
Organizers were also intentional in holding discussions from the point of view of people with intellectual disabilities. Siddhant, a Special Olympics Bharat athlete and member of the summit’s organizing team, said this strategy was meant to reinforce the idea that all voices need to be heard to promote true inclusion. “Everyone [at the National Youth Leadership Summit] works equally and shares their work. . . . [We want to show] it’s important to work with people with intellectual disabilities,” explains Siddhant.
The summit focused on topics such as inclusive leadership, event planning, and Unified Sports. Sessions on these subjects allowed Youth Leaders to expand their knowledge of Unified Champion Schools programming, as well as how to optimize the usage of digital media and increase efficiency in spreading awareness. Educators, family members, and guests from media outlets and nongovernmental organizations participated in the summit and shared their expertise with the attendees.
The summit’s impact on the Youth Leaders was evident in the motivation attendees felt to apply their newfound knowledge in their schools and communities. Aayushi, a Unified partner from the state of Chhattisgarh, says the summit enabled her to develop management and leadership skills and, just as important, empowered her to take initiative. “A big gathering [such as the National Youth Leadership Summit] teaches me how much more I [can do] with people with intellectual disabilities in my community to move forward and achieve more in the future,” says Aayushi.
Overall, the lasting success of Special Olympics Bharat’s National Youth Leadership Summit will depend upon the actions of its Youth Leaders. Moving forward, the summit’s attendees are eager to embrace this responsibility to promote inclusion in their communities. Shimran, a Special Olympics athlete from Chhattisgarh, voiced the collective sentiment of other Youth Leaders in stating that the collaboration at the summit has inspired her to be more present in her community. “It’s always a happy moment for me to participate with other Youth Leaders,” says Shimran. She further observes, “My goals for this year are to use [knowledge from the summit] to help organize and participate in more events.”