The Unified Champion Schools program in Rwanda plays a big role in breaking down the cultural stigma around intellectual disabilities in the country. With over 170 educational institutions as Unified Champion Schools, Special Olympics Rwanda has helped transform these schools into spaces where people of all abilities feel welcome and are genuinely involved in their respective communities. Thanks to the initiative from Special Olympics Rwanda, these Unified Champion Schools have supported thousands of students and teachers in advocating social inclusion and attracting new schools and organizations to join the Special Olympics movement.
Special Olympics Rwanda’s capabilities were on full display at its recent National Youth Leadership Summit. Over 200 attendees—consisting of students of all abilities from five Unified Champion Schools and delegates from government ministries and nongovernmental organizations—gathered in the capital city of Kigali to celebrate the Youth Leaders of Special Olympics Rwanda and promote further inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in everyday life.
The summit focused on the roles of Unified Sports and inclusive youth leadership in education as tools for social change. Special Olympics Rwanda athletes presented to attendees how Unified Champion Schools positively impacted their lives and those around them. Pippen, a Special Olympics athlete from Kigali, spoke on the importance of inclusion in Rwanda and shared ways to promote Special Olympics programming in a community. Pippen said the summit inspired him to be more vocal about challenges faced by Special Olympics athletes and to be a leader for inclusion. “My goal for this coming year is to focus on how best I can be involved in the inclusion of athletes through [spreading] information and best practices,” says Pippen.
The summit also held group discussions on the roles of family members and media outlets in promoting the participation of people with intellectual disabilities in sustainable development activities. Molly, a Unified partner from Kigali and Pippen’s sister, also attended the summit. She shared that watching her brother present his story motivated her to take a larger role in reducing the stigma around intellectual disabilities.
“My favorite part of the summit was hearing my brother speak about how impactful Special Olympics Rwanda has been to him as an athlete,” says Molly. "I’m [inspired] to be intentional about bringing attention to neglected athletes for them to be heard and promoting inclusion for athletes to express their capacity to be impactful in society,” she says.
The summit not only reinforced the commitment of young people in Rwanda to spread awareness about Special Olympics Rwanda in their communities, but it also strengthened local partnerships. Representatives from the Ministry of Sports and Ministry of Education participated in panel discussions with Youth Leaders, and at the summit, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO)’s eastern Africa office pledged its support help grow and develop Rwanda’s network of Unified Champion Schools.
Ben Alexandre Mpozembizi attended the summit as a delegate from UNESCO. It was Dr. Mpozembizi’s first time interacting with Special Olympics Rwanda, and he was impressed by the eager participation of Youth Leaders in activities and Special Olympics Rwanda’s willingness to collaborate with and learn from its partners. Dr. Mpozembizi emphasized the need for people with intellectual disabilities to have equal opportunities to succeed.
“Disability inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society, and making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires,” says Dr. Mpozembizi. “[People with intellectual disabilities] have to be provided the same opportunities. This is social inclusion in society,” he says.
Moving forward, the summit’s attendees—students in Unified Champion Schools and representatives from local partnerships—are eager to embrace the responsibility to promote inclusion in Rwanda. Special Olympics Rwanda hopes for the summit to become an annual event, where youth of all abilities share their ideas with partners and inspire positive change. With the success of the recent summit, Special Olympics Rwanda is well on its way to dramatically increase the visibility of people with intellectual disabilities throughout the country.