Special Olympics Programs Benefit All Learners

Young students in an inclusive classroom having lunch together | Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

If you caught #WorldDownSyndromeDay on March 21st, you came across an explosion of celebration of people with Down syndrome. Every few seconds from somewhere in the world, someone was tweeting a picture of a person with Down syndrome on their wedding day, or a kid wearing their “my homie with an extra chromie” shirt, or feet in inclusive classrooms and workplaces rocking their mismatched socks, or families expressing the most profound love for their relatives with Down syndrome. That hard-won celebration is a direct outcome of Special Olympics.

Special Olympics is more than a sports opportunity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). It is, as it was designed to be, a forum for demonstrating passion, ability, courage, effort, and the very best of sportsmanship, that is, competition coupled with grace and teamwork. In essence, a place to feed and put on display all of the best characteristics of human learning. To be recognized as a learner is one of our most fundamental human needs. It establishes our value and gains us entry into whatever environment — school, the sports field, work — where learning is taking place.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in establishing Special Olympics, chose sport in part because she recognized that schools defined ability and intellect too narrowly for people with IDD to ever demonstrate that they could be good learners¹ Today’s overemphasis on high stakes testing compounds the problem by narrowly defining how one’s ability, interest, and intellect should be recognized and rewarded. As we get further away from seeing the very natural expression of human learning, we recognize fewer and fewer students as learners, and we lose more people from the environments where our best learning and thinking is supposed to happen. For these reasons, the Department of Education’s recently proposed education budget should greatly concern all of us.

Students playing soccer at an inclusive school | © 2019 Special Olympics. Used with permission.

The Department proposed to cut $18 million in funding for Unified Champion Schools, a Special Olympics program that operates within 6,500 schools and engages more than 100,000 students with IDD across the country. Unified Champion Schools’ goal is to bring together students with IDD and their typically developing peers to play sports together and participate in inclusive clubs in order to build the skills and values of inclusion². And that effort, we should not only generously fund with federal education budget dollars but provide additional funding to study its impact on student learning and even its relationship to eventual success in the workforce. After all, it’s not just the kids with IDD who lose out — their peers who have the experience of playing and learning with them do, too.

In my two decades working in education, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that environments designed to promote the natural expression of human learning are ones that everybody wants to be a part of. The best environments encourage differences in how people learn, invite a range of perspectives, abilities and interests, and expect learning and growth to play out differently for each person. These environments bind people together precisely because they are not the same and therefore have something to learn from one another. Unified Champion Schools create these rich learning environments. This inclusive design approach is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — and it is defined and promoted within all the major federal education laws, including the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, and the newly reauthorized Career and Technical Education Act, passed with robust, bipartisan support.

Two people practicing yoga together | Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/Shutterstock.com

I have come to believe that inclusion produces learning and deep learning requires inclusion. I see this regularly at school drop off for my daughter, a great learner with Down syndrome. Every kid in her inclusive preschool classroom sees themselves as — and is valued as — a learner, and the room is bursting with learning. The parents sometimes linger at drop off because that environment is infectious and we are grateful that is what our children get to be a part of.

Opportunities to broaden how we see and nurture talent and interest, how we experience the joy of learning with others and from them, how we bind people through their similarities as well as their differences, are in short supply in our education system. We need more of them and we need to better understand how they produce learning for all students and what the impact of that learning is on individuals and on the group. Those lessons could feed our classrooms, inform our education system priorities, and are worth the investment.


Dr. Sam Johnston is the mother of a child with Down syndrome and the Director of Postsecondary and Workforce Development at CAST, an education nonprofit in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

[1] Shriver, T. (2015). Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] Shriver, T. Special Olympics survived Betsy DeVos’ attempt to axe our school programs. Here’s what we do for America’s kids. Retrieved on April 4 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/special-olympics-survived-betsy-devos-attempt-axe-our-school-programs-ncna988676