On a beautiful spring day, students at the 1st Junior High School of Vrilissia in Athens, Greece, gathered in the front schoolyard to celebrate the end of a successful school year. The students were different from each other in both age and ability—some were students with intellectual disabilities and others weren’t —but that didn’t matter. They exchanged handmade treats, laughed and chatted easily with each other, and celebrated friendships made throughout the year.
Similar scenes can be found at an increasing number of schools across Greece. Since 2018, Special Olympics Hellas has initiated Unified Schools programming in consultation with the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to foster the social inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities in school communities. With over three years of evidence that Unified Schools programming has produced a powerful impact on local communities—including people both with and without intellectual disabilities—Special Olympics Hellas and the Ministry further strengthened their partnership and signed a Memorandum of Cooperation that has elevated Special Olympics activities. Ambassador Kodellas, president of Special Olympics Hellas, and Minister Kerameus, the Greek Minister of Education and Religious Affairs, solidified the agreement to strengthen the impact of Play Unified: Learn Unified, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), in the country. As a result, teachers, students, and administrators are receiving more robust and institutional support to implement inclusion in education.
Charalampos Papaioannou, the Head of the Directorate of Special Education for the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, collaborated with Special Olympics Hellas in numerous meetings and discussions to ensure that programming initiatives are primed for success. “[We] support the educational programming of Special Olympics Hellas . . . to empower social inclusion of persons with disabilities, supporting their families and sensitizing the educational community,” said Mr. Papaioannou.
Through this government partnership, teachers have year-long access to e-seminars related to Special Olympics and its philosophy, sports-for-all and its benefits, and the creation of Unified teams and inclusion. According to Georgia Kollileka, a teacher at 1st Junior High School of Vrilissia, these resources are crucial for teachers to effectively implement inclusion.
“It is well known that the educator’s role is not limited to mere knowledge transmission but, mainly, [and] taking as a starting point the students’ specific needs, it becomes consultative, cooperative, and supportive. I strongly believe that teachers, through their participation in these educational seminars, can dive into the sheer meaning of empathy, understanding, and acceptance. This way, they will be able to more effectively [help] students with learning difficulties, and they will ingrain these values in the students so that they can gradually accept . . . the inclusion of people with disabilities, [in] the school environment at first and [in] society later on.”
Furthermore, teachers can attend the e-seminars during their scheduled work hours and receive a certificate for their completion. Through this series of educational seminars supported by both Special Olympics Hellas and the Ministry, more teachers are becoming equipped with the knowledge and tools to teach students the value and importance of inclusion. The Ministry also benefits from the official partnership. By collaborating with Special Olympics, the Ministry has access to programming that can be implemented throughout the country without expense to the Ministry itself. Additionally, the Special Olympics resources can be used by the Ministry to showcase its capabilities to various audiences and stakeholders that fall outside of Special Olympics Hellas’s network.
As made evident by the e-seminars, the resources created by this partnership are not just for promoting inclusion on the playing field. The Ministry has integrated inclusive coursework curated by Special Olympics into the school curriculum as a course option in participating schools. Teachers who take the e-courses can share their knowledge with students, who in turn receive course credit for their participation. In effect, this policy removes invisible barriers that previously prevented educators from incorporating inclusion into their classrooms and kept students from learning more about Special Olympics programming.
As somewhat of a capstone for the partnership, starting next school year the entire country will celebrate the first annual National Special Olympics Day by holding Unified events. This initiative will amplify the message of inclusion and spread awareness of its importance. Artemis Vassilikopoulou, the National Director of Special Olympics Hellas, expressed why she looks forward to a time when the intent of the Memorandum of Cooperation is fully realized.
“We will be able to achieve the maximum results as we will address even more educators and even more students on a long-term basis with the support of the Ministry. Moreover, if, from an early age, children receive the appropriate education and become aware that the world belongs to everyone and that respect and dignity are owed to everyone, then . . . marginalization and bullying incidents will keep diminishing and … eventually they will be erased,” said Mrs. Vassilikopoulou.
The partnership between Special Olympics Hellas and the Ministry serves as a model of a sustainable partnership that is already having an impressive impact. The partnership will remove barriers to inclusion and dramatically enable the expansion of Unified Schools across Greece. As Mr. Papaioannou noted, “We are certain that this collaboration will change the foundations of not only the educational community but also society as a whole as concerns their attitude and acceptance of persons with disabilities.”