In 2015, Brazil created the Law for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, which mandated that all schools, including over 1,500 schools in the city of Rio de Janeiro, provide equal access to education regardless of a student’s perceived level of ability. The law ended school segregation, finally giving students with intellectual disabilities (ID)—traditionally sidelined in education and other experiences—the chance to learn in mainstream settings. For the first time, students with intellectual disabilities were physically included in schools. Social inclusion, however, proved to be far more elusive.
Students with ID described feeling isolated and inferior to other students and were frequently told they were only in school because the law demanded it—not because they were welcome members of the community. Teachers also struggled, unsure of how to build relationships between and among students with and without ID. And government officials were at a loss as to how to transform the law’s intent—inclusion and equality for people with disabilities—into a meaningful reality.
“For many years there was no curriculum extension action aimed to our students with disabilities. But now Unified Schools provides opportunities for students with and without disabilities at the same time to be exchanging experiences through various physical activities.”
After years of disappointment on all sides, circumstances changed dramatically with the 2018 launch of Play Unified: Learn Unified. Staff of Special Olympics Brazil met with Rio de Janeiro education officials and shared the transformative power of Unified Schools and Unified Sports programming. Relaying their many stories of success, Special Olympics Brazil described how Unified Schools across the country had been championing inclusion. Education officials recognized the potential to make their schools more equitable for students of all abilities. Special Olympics represented not only the voice of people with ID, but also the opportunity to take prompt action through Brazil’s government policy makers to make a positive difference for the entire education system.
Special Olympics Brazil staff and Rio de Janeiro education officials left the meeting with a concrete plan to create change. Special Olympics Brazil would do what it does best—help foster inclusion through sport—and Rio de Janeiro schools would take a first step by unifying their physical education classes.
Unified physical education classes turned out to be the catalyst for turning Rio de Janeiro schools into spaces of true inclusion, acceptance and equality. As students began exercising and playing sports together, their perspectives gradually shifted. Students without ID started to see their peers with ID as regular students, just like them. Instead of feeling pity for students with ID, they now recognize their strengths and contributions and feel admiration and respect. Students with ID were brought off the sidelines and taken more seriously by their peers, teachers and families. Previously, special schools had never been invited to events with mainstream schools. Now, students with and without intellectual disabilities attend sporting events together. Thanks to the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, over 50 schools in the city have been able to sustain Unified physical education classes and activities, with that number continuing to grow.
The change experienced in Rio de Janeiro cannot be overstated. For years, students with ID had been overlooked in their schools, while education and government officials struggled to find effective pathways to inclusion. After just one year of implementing the Unified Schools program, the city of Rio has found its solution. Students who had long been shunned, and then were barely tolerated under the 2008 law, are now being accepted and even valued. Over the next five years, Rio de Janeiro expects to continue expanding both the number and scope of its Unified Schools, creating pathways to social inclusion, education, health services and more.
The Play Unified: Learn Unified project is a 3-year project aimed at creating Unified School programming in 14 countries, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Brazil sustains nearly 180 Unified Schools, from backland cities like Arcoverde to large metropolises like Rio de Janeiro.