Like most teachers, I usually try to spend school breaks “unplugging” from the world of structured academics. But during my most recent break, I am proud to say I was firmly “plugged in” to the Alaska Special Olympics Winter Games. I had a lot of fun while meeting some amazing people.
Special Olympics held a Youth Summit concurrent with the Winter Games in Anchorage. The Youth Summit was hosted by my school, East High School, and involved seven other schools. The goal of the Youth Summit was to foster leadership skills in high schoolers, as well as to share ideas about how Alaskan schools can start Partners Clubs and implement Alaska Special Olympics School Programs in their communities. Partners Clubs provide athletic, social, and recreational opportunities to students with disabilities (Athletes) paired with students without disabilities (Partners).
Teachers, Partners, and Athletes participated in team-building exercises, shared organizational ideas, brainstormed activities to increase inclusion in their schools, and attended Winter Games events like floor hockey, snowshoeing, and skiing. The students shared their perspectives on what the school and community climate is like for individuals with disabilities. It’s impressive to see students who are really dedicated to supporting people with disabilities—not just because it’s right, but because they recognize and appreciate what they’re learning in the process.
A key goal of Partners Club at East High School is to include students with disabilities into the school community to the greatest degree possible. It was interesting to learn about the location of special education classrooms and program protocol with respect to visits from general education students.
The students’ anecdotes told the real story about the climate in Alaska schools for kids with disabilities. I’m happy to say that in all the schools represented at the Youth Summit, there are students who accept and accommodate students with disabilities. However, some of the experiences relayed at the Summit tell me that we have a long way to go in developing school programs that are truly inclusive with respect to students with significant physical and cognitive disabilities.
I felt truly lucky to witness these stories of support, compassion, and advocacy for persons with disabilities. Even if I wasn’t “unplugged” from the school setting during the break, I definitely felt recharged by this experience. And it reminded me that Unified sports was actually my doorway into the world of connecting to individuals with disabilities. . . .
I was 17 and enrolled in a high-school psychology class that required a certain number of service hours as a component of its curriculum. I initially viewed the service requirement as an inconvenient infringement upon time spent socializing, listening to Beatles records, and reading Albert Camus essays. Without much thought and with even less motivation, I signed up to practice once a week with the Unified Special Olympics basketball team.
Two months later, my teammates and I traveled to play in the state tournament, where we won and lost some games. But most importantly, Unified Sports and Special Olympics helped me grow as much as, if not more than, those individuals with disabilities it was designed to support. I had ten new friends at school and, as long as I remained connected to Special Olympics, a lifetime more to meet.
A question to my fellow educators: How do you get typical students to connect with students with disabilities?