Let’s be champions together

Published 10:42 am Wednesday, April 29, 2015

by Rick Jeffrey

In my 20 plus years in Special Olympics, I still, on occasion, make the same mistake. I miss the boat. I underestimate the abilities either cognitive or physical of our Special Olympics athletes; athletes with intellectual disabilities. But by continually making this mistake, I, in essence, pretty much make them like everyone else; just another person; available to be judged and limited by what we see or what we think we see. You see, the limitations that all of us place on each other determine how we perceive each other, treat each other, like each other, fear each other, raise each other up or marginalize each other.

Ask most coaches out there and they will tell you that the biggest limitations on any student athlete are the ones coaches place upon them, among which might be too slow, not big enough or not tough enough. It might not be much different in the classroom where teachers might see a student as too lazy, too distracted or not interested. And these are just student athletes in any sport, in any classroom, at any high school in Virginia.

Now compound that with down syndrome, autism or an undiagnosed disability resulting in a student’s inability to keep up with peers. In most cases, the limitations in a school environment, an environment that moves all too fast, are enormous. And even in schools with wonderful inclusive classroom environments, the opportunity to interact and really build friendships and relationships remains limited.

These students with intellectual disabilities are, in most cases, not receiving an opportunity to really participate in sports; an activity that, at its heart, teaches teamwork, trust and communication; an activity that at its core promotes competency, credibility and caring; the building blocks of human relationships. Sports and sports teams are probably more conducive to building relationships and creating friendships than possibly any other school activity. Plus, throw in the opportunity to “wear the colors” and represent your school and you create an emotional bond that may be the most inclusive opportunity for any student.

Imagine a partnership between Special Olympics and high schools throughout Virginia. Imagine the opportunity for a student with an intellectual (or any) disability to play alongside his or her peers without disabilities in a unified sports team environment; to rely on each other, to communicate with each other, to believe in each other, to become Champions Together.

Imagine no more because Champions Together is here. In fact, it’s right here at Franklin and Southampton high schools — plus 22 other high schools in Virginia.

This partnership with the Virginia High School League is aimed at bringing together youth with and without disabilities to build the first unified generation ­— a generation where youth will build upon the friendships and life lessons learned through sports and the Special Olympics movement so, later in life, they will not be afraid to live, work and THRIVE alongside their peers with different ability levels.

Champions Together high schools will form inclusive track and field teams this spring that will compete against other local high schools. Other components of the program include an inclusive student-led leadership team that will organize an awareness event to promote respect and inclusion, and promote philanthropy to support the future of the program.

At Special Olympics, we dedicate ourselves each day to building communities more respectful in their conduct, more inclusive in their makeup, more unified in their fabric. And each day the Virginia High School League is promoting education, leadership, sportsmanship, character and citizenship for students by establishing and maintaining high standards for school activities and competitions.

A new, young, energetic base of athletes and volunteers — which could include the sons or daughters of many reading this op-ed piece — will eventually transition from the schools into our communities and help Special Olympics Virginia and the Virginia High School League continue to achieve our missions.

The Champions Together program is new, and as it develops, we will learn a lot about how to build it, refine it and make it the best that it can be for everyone. And do you know who we will learn this from? We will learn it from our young people with and without disabilities who, through their participation and their ownership of this inclusive program, will prove to us that they are the future.

Let’s Play Unified!

RICK JEFFREY has been the President of Special Olympics Virginia since 2000. He has served on many national and international committees for Special Olympics, and is currently serving on the United States Leadership Council where he is chair of the Sports Committee. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Fried Center for Achieving Potential in Crozet. This column was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.