Creating school communities of acceptance, inclusion, and respect

Special Olympics Arizona
Country of Implementation
United States of America
North America
First published

The goal of the Special Olympics Unified Strategy for Schools and Youth is to reduce bullying and exclusion, promoting healthy activities and engages young people in pro-social activities. 2014/2015 6,424 youth participated at 184 Arizona schools and 335,463 youth were exposed to awareness and advocacy messaging and activities.

Solution details


“The Unified Movement empowers youth with and without intellectual disabilities to co-create school communities of acceptance, inclusion, and respect through youth-led advocacy, awareness, education, sports, and recreation.” Mr. Isaac Sanft, Director of Support Programmes, Special Olympics Arizona

Problems Targeted

In the United States students with cognitive disabilities are still mostly educated in separate classrooms and are often an invisible part of the student body. Beyond segregated academics, they also miss out on normative and developmentally advantageous activities such as sports, clubs, and socialization with their non-disabled peers.

Solution, Innovation and Impact

The Unified Movement is implemented one school at a time by recruiting and empowering youth leaders with and without disabilities who, with the support of teachers and school administrators, establish inclusive social clubs (Unified Clubs). These leaders and club members carry the message of acceptance and unity to their peers through disability awareness campaigns and advocacy for respect, such as the elimination of hurtful slurs. The passion of the students to be a part of and drive the Movement has been the most powerful force in breaking down historical stereotypes and social stigma for youth with disabilities. In addition, teachers are trained as coaches for inclusive sports and to teach integrated health education as part of Unified Sports. Schools add an integrated physical education class to their course catalogues with district-approved curriculum provided by Special Olympics Arizona. The Movement is sustained within each school through a unique fundraising campaign tailored to their distinct needs, and is supported by local law enforcement and a state-wide network of mentors.

Funding, Outlook and Transferability

Special Olympics Arizona freely offers electronic versions of the guides and manuals necessary for state and national Special Olympics programmes to launch and grow the Unified Movement. Available materials include Unified Sports Curricula for elementary and high school, Healthy LEAP Curricula for elementary and high school, and a Youth Activation Programme Guide and Unified Clubs Guide. Youth and administrators from 19 Special Olympics state and national programmes have received guidance and resources to launch or grow their own Movement. Going forward, the Unified Movement website, to be launched in 2016, will streamline the marketing and distribution of all these materials, plus videos, sample letters, and testimonials.


Life Story


“... a standing ovation from his class!”

Alan Barberi is a 19-year-old graduate of Estrella Foothills High School (EFHS) in the state of Arizona, where he has always been a huge sports fan and supporter of EFHS athletics. For the first couple of years of high school Alan was an honorary member of the football and basketball teams, acting as a manager, travelling with the team, and being their biggest fan. But for Alan, this wasn’t enough; he wanted to play, to experience the game first-hand, to truly belong as an equal among his fellow sports enthusiasts. Alan got his first chance to play sports through Unified Sports – a Special Olympics team at his school made up of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities. Alan trained in Track & Field alongside other students and competed in wheelchair races. Then he set his sights even higher. Alan had a dream to leave his wheelchair and walk across the stage with his walker to accept his diploma at high school graduation. Two of the non-disabled peers from his Unified Sports team stepped up to help him meet this challenge. One young man worked with Alan in the school weight room to build his upper body strength. Another assisted with workouts on a treadmill. For many months Alan trained, increasing from five minutes on the treadmill to gruelling two-hour workouts. In the end, Alan did walk to receive his diploma – to a standing ovation from his graduating class and tears of joy from his father.

Related information


Solutions with the same:

Country of Implementation

United States of America

Region of Implementation

North America