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Special Olympics Unified students in Shanghai
Our Future Is in Their Hands

All over the world, Special Olympics Unified Schools programming is creatively and energetically changing attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities -- and also preparing today’s youth for a diverse and dynamic global landscape.

There are now over 100,000 Unified Schools and Unified Champion Schools around the world! This year, we saw even more exciting growth in the number of participating schools:

New Unified Schools and new Unified Champion Schools by region:

  • Africa 166
  • Asia Pacific 2,739
  • East Asia 94
  • Europe Eurasia 462
  • Latin America 288
  • Middle East & North Africa 462
  • North America 7,632
One of the joyful student activities at a Special Olympics Unified Champion School® in the Hellas (Greece) program

Unified Schools and Unified Champion Schools

Special Olympics created Unified Schools and Unified Champion Schools to bring students -- with and without intellectual disabilities -- together to have fun and learn from each other, appreciating everyone's differences along the way.

Special Olympics Unified Schools offer Unified Sports at least twice each school year. Unified Champion Schools go even further: the strategy is to create school-wide climates of inclusion through use of three interconnected components (Special Olympics Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole school engagement). Both models are a sustainable and scalable mechanism to deliver opportunities for inclusion to more youth worldwide.

  • Continued efforts toward advancing 12 global projects supporting the growth and expansion of new Unified Schools in over 30 countries. This resulted in engagement of 4,211 Unified Schools outside of the U.S.
  • The United Arab Emirates became the first country in the world to commit to implementing Unified Champion Schools programming in all of its public schools. Implementation of this commitment began in 2019 and will continue through the coming years.
  • Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools within the United States entered its 12th year of partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Department of Education. This resulted in 7,623 new and returning Unified Champion Schools engaged across the United States during the 2018-2019 school year.
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Children race as part of a Young Athletes event during the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019

Young Athletes

Special Olympics Young Athletes is an inclusive program grounded in motor development and family education as a first step towards lifelong health and community inclusion for children, ages 2 to 7 years old, and their families. In 2019, Special Olympics expanded Young Athletes activities to reach more communities around the world and create positive change in the lives of children and their families.

Thanks to support from the IKEA Foundation and the MetLife Foundation, the reach of Special Olympics Young Athletes has significantly expanded in Asia Pacific, Europe-Eurasia and Middle East North Africa. With the new participants in 2019, Special Olympics exceeded its 2016-2020 growth goals for Young Athletes.

This year also saw great advances in the programmatic work, with new resources launched to support learn-to-train sports activities, creative opportunities to engage and educate families on the health and wellbeing of their children, and emphasis on high-quality training of Young Athletes coaches.

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Students proudly spreading the word at the University of Notre Dame, USA.

Spread the Word: Inclusion

In 2019, "Spread the Word to End the Word" became "Spread the Word: Inclusion," expanding beyond the elimination of a word and into the creation of a new reality: inclusion for all people with intellectual disabilities through grassroots action.

  • In March, 13,000+ people took the pledge via SpreadtheWord.org -- helping create 4.8 million global impressions over social media
  • The campaign reached a brand new audience at the SWSW EDU conference (with over 7,000 attendees) in Austin, Texas, USA.
  • More than 25,000 students took the pledge with 133 schools participating in South Dakota, USA.
  • In Mississippi, USA, the Spread the Word pledge banner was brought to the Mississippi State House & Senate, so lawmakers could sign the pledge.
Special Olympics Africa sibling workshop held in Tanzania.

Siblings as Leaders

Siblings are connectors of three groups central to Special Olympics: Special Olympics athletes, families, and youth. Siblings bring personal experiences and lifetime relationships with their sibling(s) with ID to the Special Olympics movement.

  • We launched a new set of resources to provide siblings of people with ID, parents, and local Special Olympics Programs information about the different ways Special Olympics can support siblings and opportunities to get involved.
  • Held Regional Sibling Workshops in Francophone West Africa, Latin America, and Asia Pacific. Workshops trained youth siblings in leadership skills and trained Special Olympics Family Support Network leaders on the importance of engaging siblings in their local Special Olympics programming.
  • Distributed 15 youth innovation project grants to siblings who attended Regional Sibling workshops to implement their projects to promote inclusion in their schools and communities.
  • Presented findings from the qualitative study on sibling experiences at the 2019 Sibling Leadership Network National Conference in Minnesota, USA.

Finding Even More Ways to Stay Unified, Even Remotely!

In 2020, COVID-19 caused school closures around the world; over the course of the pandemic, over 1.2 billion children and youth were out of school. This resulted in Special Olympics programs adjusting to be more creative, resourceful and innovative, using virtual engagement, to reach youth with —and without —intellectual disabilities.

Programs developed a wide range of virtual talent shows, eSports activities, digital Unified Sports challenges, socially distant in-person events, and virtual fitness classes. Even given the virtual nature resulting from quarantine and lockdowns, Special Olympics was able to forge and activate an international team of youth leaders, teachers, community organizers and coaches, who are bringing the power of social inclusion to schools and communities around the world.

Further, we’ve increased audience interaction to grow the movement by attracting new stakeholders to our mission. While exclusively remote, our communications and marketing efforts, have led to reaching new consumers and policymakers through rich storytelling directly provided through Special Olympics digital and social media channels and through conduits such as traditional media and digital-first influencers.

This storytelling activity has produced widespread, deep coverage for the Special Olympics movement and the push for inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. Secured coverage highlighted and stressed the importance of our sports, health, education, and leadership messages and offerings. In fact, in 2020 outreach resulted in well more than one billion impressions consisting of articles, bylines, posts, and mentions in national to micro-local media outlets and social media channels.

In 2021, we also launched the Global Center for Inclusion in Education in Abu Dhabi, which focuses on the intersection of policy, practice and research. The Global Center publishes briefs that illuminate our work on inclusion in education, along with case studies showcasing the exemplary work of Special Olympics staff, coaches, volunteers, athletes and youth.