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Community Impact

Sport as a Catalyst for Inclusive Education: The Role of Special Olympics

Special Olympics young female athlete smiling while holding a football.
The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace is celebrated annually on 6 April and presents an opportunity to recognize the positive role sport and physical activity play in communities and in people’s lives across the globe.

By David Evangelista, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President & Managing Director, and Diana Amini, H&M Move Head of Move Together Program

As the world celebrates the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on 6 April, it's a moment to truly grasp the profound impact that sports have in uplifting those often sidelined within their communities and nations. Embracing the 2024 theme of 'Sport for the Promotion of Peaceful and Inclusive Societies,' Special Olympics emerges as a beacon of inclusive excellence. From schoolyards to community hubs and sports arenas across the globe, Special Olympics spearheads transformative initiatives, harnessing the dynamic energy of sports to fuel investment and foster inclusivity within the education sector.

For over five decades, the Special Olympics movement has been championing the rights and abilities of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Across more than 190 nations, Special Olympics national organizations have been organizing year-round sports training and competitions tailored for this often-marginalized group. These initiatives serve a dual purpose: they enhance understanding and visibility of the talents of individuals with IDD while also providing them with increased social protection and support.

One of the most notable programs within Special Olympics is Unified Sports©, a globally recognized initiative where individuals with and without intellectual disabilities come together, training and competing side by side on the same team. This program acts as a bridge, fostering collaborative learning, teamwork and mutual growth.

Furthermore, to ensure that inclusivity becomes an integral part of the academic journey for future generations, Special Olympics has introduced global Unified Schools programming. This initiative integrates Unified Sports into school-based physical education activities, offering all youth—regardless of their abilities—the opportunity to contribute to the creation of welcoming communities.

People sitting at a Roundtable during the announcement of the Special Olympics Global Leadership Coalition for Inclusion
Special Olympics announced the formation of the Global Leadership Coalition for Inclusion in Berlin, Germany, at the World Games 2023.

Sports possess the power to unite people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Through inclusive sports, individuals come together, challenging stereotypes and stigmas, while also exchanging knowledge and celebrating each other's unique talents. Although these ideals may seem idealistic at first glance, the impact of Unified Schools extends beyond sports. It has been instrumental in achieving significant academic and developmental goals, including a notable decrease in bullying incidents, improved test scores, enhanced student and teacher retention rates. As a result, the attention of national governments worldwide has been drawn to the contributions of Unified Schools and Unified Sports programming. These governments are eager to adopt models that promote inclusive education, recognizing the potential for collaboration between Ministries of Sport and Education to enhance accessibility and efficiency across the board.

In 2023, amidst the excitement of the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, the movement marked a historic moment by launching the inaugural Global Leadership Coalition for Inclusion, thanks to the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. This coalition aims to establish robust public-private partnerships with national governments worldwide. By bringing together a diverse array of stakeholders including government bodies, philanthropic organizations, civil society, academia, industry leaders and members of the global development community, the Coalition aims to turn the vision of inclusive education through sports into a tangible reality for all. With ambitious targets set to engage over 2,000,000 youth across 150,000 schools globally, the Coalition presents national governments with a unique opportunity to champion inclusion within their borders by rallying support from various sectors. Additionally, the Coalition serves as a platform for nations to reinforce their commitment to crucial international agreements, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN-CRPD).

Special Olympics and H&M Move extend a warm invitation to partners from all sectors to join the Coalition and to invest in the expansion of Unified programming—whether it be within schools, on the playing field, or within local communities. By fostering solidarity and unity among youth from diverse backgrounds through sports worldwide, Special Olympics Unified programming not only brings immense pride but also underscores the pressing need to celebrate this year's International Day of Sport for Development and Peace with renewed urgency.

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