Changing the Future for Inclusion

According to the California Department of Education, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers without disabilities.

Clare and Tarin are some of the young people looking to change that.

The girls are currently seniors at Davis Senior High School and recently joined other students throughout Northern California and Nevada to host awareness campaigns at their respective schools during R-word Week in March. The initiatives were part of the annual Spread the Word to End the Word movement around the country, educating the public about the negative effects of using the word “retard(ed)” and encouraging people to pledge to stop saying the word as a starting point toward creating more accepting communities for everyone.

Tarin and Clare, who started a Best Buddies club at Davis on their own at the beginning of the school year, organized a week full of activities around the R-word campaign to promote inclusion between students in special education and general education. Monday was a “Pledge Day’ that encouraged students to sign the Spread the Word to End the Word banner; on Tuesday, the girls developed an obstacle course to challenge general education students to maneuver around blindfolded, to simulate vision impairment, and to navigate in a wheelchair; Wednesday featured speakers from Best Buddies and Special Olympics; and the week culminated in a Unified Basketball game on Friday during the lunch period.

“We want students to understand that people with disabilities are no different than anyone else,” explained Clare. “They enjoy doing the same things – playing basketball, watching sports, going to movies with their friends. It’s important to get that message out there by having these social events where students can come to watch, interact and learn.”

The Statewide Taskforce on Education recently reported that less than 30 percent of students indicate that they would be comfortable even speaking to a classmate with an intellectual disability. Tarin believes that the issue can be remedied through education and simply getting students with special needs to be a visible and comfortable part of the campus.

“Depending on the way you grow up, a lot of people aren’t really educated about [special needs] and don’t know what’s different and how to react,” she said. “With the R-word, people may not really realize what they’re saying and the impact it can have when they use it. That’s a major part of this campaign.”

Along with the group at Davis, R-word awareness campaigns, activities and Unified Basketball games were held at Rocklin High School (in conjunction with Whitney High School), Reed High School, Desert Oasis High School, Crocker Middle School, Givens Elementary School, Dondero Elementary School, Harmon Elementary School and others during the week.

Clare explained that, while there are some obstacles to getting the interest of all students, the overall response has been positive.

“We’ve had a lot of support from our school and a good number of students came out to the Unified Basketball game,” she said. “A lot of people signed the banner, which was nice to see. We saw that some students have never really thought about the R-word being hurtful until this week.”

Inclusion and respect start at an early age. And while Clare and Tarin will soon graduate and move on to the next chapters in their lives, they hope that the momentum that they and Special Olympics put into place will continue for future students at the school.

Davis will host a Unified Track event on Wednesday, March 15, taking advantage of the school’s roughly 230 track athletes to build more relationships and awareness for students with intellectual disabilities on campus.
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Testimonial Tuesday With Fertitta Middle School

At a recent Schools Partnership Program in Clark County, members of the National Junior Honor Society at Fertitta Middle School helped make the event possible! We can see how much the student-athletes with intellectual disabilities love these Schools events, but it is equally wonderful to see how these events so positively affect students without disabilities. Please enjoy the window into these students’ experiences with Special Olympics in the schools!


“I had a wonderful time helping with the Special Olympics event, and I learned so much. I had a beautiful experience working with the students. I met student-athletes who have hearts of gold and don’t get the right recognition because of their disability. That breaks my heart. I hope I can continue this in the future.”

My experience with Special Olympics was amazing and almost indescribable. The students that participated clearly had fun in most of the games. It was very fun working on the battle ship station. I would want to do it again! The students were so sweet and happy to just be there. I have had past experiences with children with special needs and loved every part of it. Just like today, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. It was a lot of fun working with the students at the station, and to see how excited they got when they were able to get a ball where it is supposed to be. My favorite part would be the ending where everyone was on the bubble wrap.”


“Overall this experience was one of the best things I’ve done!”

“My experience today with Special Olympics was amazing to be able to play with the students. I got to do the hockey and soccer station. We had to help the students push a blow-up ball into a hoop with a hockey stick. It was an amazing moment seeing them able to laugh and have fun. During the experience I learned that we should be grateful for what we have now. Also, that even though some people have disabilities and aren’t able to do activities in the same way that we can do, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treated differently. Everyone should be treated equally. Overall, today was an amazing experience – I got to play with the students and saw them having fun.”

“I learned a lot today with Special Olympics. For instance, I thought the students’ disabilities would get the best of them but instead, they just played on and had a fun time. Setting up the bowling event was the best too. We made the students so happy. Some students were so nice – they gave us hugs or high-fives. In return we said complements to them like, ‘You should be a pro bowler.’ Doing this amazing event to help the students felt good. I would love to do this again and again. If I didn’t do this, I might not have grown as a person.


“My experience with Special Olympics was wonderful. I have never learned more about students with disabilities. It taught me how to really appreciate who they are. My mom works with autistic children on a regular basis, and I really got an idea of what her job was like. Trust me, it was really nice to get out of class but it was more than that. It was a hands-on educational experience. I loved all of the people who came through the doors. That’s my experience with the Special Olympics – the most amazing experience of my life.”


“I learned a lot today from the Special Olympics. I learned a lot about life and how other people can still do what people without disabilities can. The number one thing I learned was that I am able to take my opportunities and help people that don’t have the same amount of access that we do. I had a great time doing this and making students happy. This was a great way to show that Fertitta is the place to go and have students volunteer and let students have a great time. We never realize but we get so many opportunities to do so many things but not everyone notices how we can share these opportunities with others. I’m glad we notice and took it!”


“When I was volunteering at Special Olympics, I met a lot new people. A lot of the people that I met were in wheelchairs and it was upsetting to see that they couldn’t do the easy everyday things I do every day. It makes me appreciate what I have a lot more. I met one girl, and she was so sweet and happy. It was such a great day. The students seemed to be so joyful and appreciative of what we were doing. I also got to see my mom’s old students and they both gave me hugs and were so happy. Their smiles made my day.”

Thank you to Fertitta Middle School students for their insightful words and volunteering spirit! Click here to see more testimonial Tuesdays!

Special Olympics Northern California Partners With CIF to Create Inclusive Sports

On Monday, Nov. 30, the course of high school sports and the field of intellectual disabilities was changed for the good. In a landmark decision many years in the making, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), Special Olympics Northern California and Southern California along with the California Department of Education announced a partnership to establish an inclusive culture that promotes participation opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities!

This official partnership elevates the life-changing power of sports for students of all abilities to the state level and includes Unified Sports, which pairs students with and without disabilities on the same school team. In addition to offering more athletic opportunities to an increased number of students, this partnership makes an indelible mark on California school culture as it promotes respect for all students.


Why is this so important for students of all abilities?

To have CIF and the California Department of Education recognize the incredible power of students of all abilities having the opportunities to play sports is quite literally game changing. This opens doors for students with disabilities to play sports just like their peers in general education. More importantly, it creates a level playing field for all students, regardless of their abilities. It brings together two groups of students – those with and without disabilities – to be teammates. When schools have Unified Sports on their campus, there is less bullying and more friendships created.


What will this new partnership look like at the high school level?

Individual high schools can choose to start a Unified Sports program in a variety of ways, choosing one that works for the own school and current athletics program. Schools should look to engage resources on their campus that include athletics, sports teams, special education, clubs or other student groups. Schools should contact their appropriate Special Olympics chapter office and also look to the California Interscholastic Federation and their website for “How to start and Inclusive Sports Program” for information and resources to get started (Click here to see!). The main thing is to start small and it will grow!

How did this partnership come about?

For the past few years Special Olympics has been working with the California Interscholastic Federation with pilot Unified Sports leagues to enhance the already amazing experience for students to represent their high school as an athlete. Often times there are barriers to entry for other students on campus that are not part of the traditional sports programs that were being offered. These pilot programs have been executed with amazing results. Students, teachers, administrators and parents all see the value and opportunities that inclusive Unified Sports offer.

Since the early 2000s, Special Olympics Northern California and Southern California have been providing athletic opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities through the Schools Partnership Program. The Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership Program brings sports to K-12 public schools. Multiple schools and school districts across California have been introducing Unified Sports with well-deserved fanfare and incredible success with Liberty Union High School District starting our very first one with guidance of Athletic Director Steve Amaro. This new partnership with CIF and CDE increases the positive impact that Unified Sports makes.


It is estimated that over 10 percent of the students in California schools have a documented disability. The inclusion of athletic programs for students with disabilities increases opportunities and encourages access to the academic benefits through athletic participation. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports team, teaching teamwork and the value of inclusion for all participants.

What They’re Saying

“As a former coach, I am so pleased about the new partnership. It will help schools ensure that students with intellectual, developmental, physical and other types of disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from all the things they can learn by participating in sports – teamwork, discipline, focus, persistence, practice, healthy living and so many other life lessons.” – State Superintendent Tom Torlakson

“CIF’s visionary decision to partner with both Special Olympics Northern and Southern California in order to provide students with greater access to the Unified Sports program enables us to move closer to a world where the intellectually disabled are accepted by society as a whole and inclusion is commonplace.” – Special Olympics Northern California President & CEO David Solo

“Unified programs will offer new and expanded opportunities on our high school campuses. Working with California Special Olympics and California Department of Education, CIF will provide strategies and best practices for integrating and growing unified sports programs at our 1,576 member schools.” – CIF Executive Direction Roger L. Blake

With the announcement of this partnership CIF launched a new section on titled “Inclusive Sports.” This resource will provide CIF member schools with tools to implement programs for students with disabilities on their school campuses. We are so excited for the future of sports in California!

Step Inside Special Olympics at Rocketship Schools

This past school year, Rocketship Education in Santa Clara County got their first taste of the Schools Partnership Program! As pilot schools in 2014-15, three schools in the Rocketship program had Special Olympics at their school!

They hosted a basketball competition that was completely Unified! They also had skills competition! For the 2015-16 school year, Rocketship is adding one more school and adding soccer this fall! To see more about this partnership on Rocketship’s website, click here!

Rocketship even made a great video about Special Olympics in their schools!

If you can’t see the video above, click here.

Welcome aboard, Rocketship!

Hip, Hip Hooray for Mrs. Houston

One of our teachers of the seasons – Shannon Houston in Clark County, Nevada – recently earned another well-deserved award for her trophy case. Special Olympics Nevada selected Mrs. Houston as our Schools Partnership Program Volunteer of the Year! The volunteer of the year awards are our highest form of recognition and we are so thankful for our volunteers!


We caught up with Mrs. Houston to get her thoughts on the Schools Partnership Program and more! Why do you think the Schools Partnership Program makes a difference?

Mrs. Houston: The Schools Partnership Program makes a difference because the general education population becomes aware of the special needs population at their school. Even more remarkable and important, the general education student’s involvement oftentimes moves from mere taking part to more intimate relationships throughout the school day, such as lunchtime, before and after school.

b13 What’s your favorite part of your job and being involved in the Schools Partnership Program?

SH: The favorite part of my job is seeing special needs students break out of their shell when they come to realize that the gen ed students are sincere in their interactions with them. I also love to see gen ed students realize that special needs students have way more to offer than they may have originally assumed. What tips or insights would you give other schools, teachers and students when it comes to planning Schools Partnership Program events?

SH: Tap into student groups that exhibit leadership roles at your school such as student council, honor society, key club, student athletes, etc. Definitely use Best Buddies if your school has that program. Once you have volunteers, be sure that everyone is aware of the desired goal(s).

17200132129_138c9a9953_c What tips or insights would you give other schools about creating inclusive campuses?

SH: I held Spread the Word to End the Word pledge during lunchtime and that allowed me to bring awareness to the entire student body. It’s also a good idea to know the publications teacher(s) at your school to help you use morning announcements and or school newsletter as tools for disseminating information. Providing a variety of methods for student and adult involvement, to meet the needs of commitment levels, interest, time constraints, etc., is also an important element. When you’re not teaching, what do you like to do?

SH: During my off time, I enjoying riding my Trikke on the Las Vegas trails.

15789962654_83a03fb26a_o What would you tell other teachers and parents about the Schools Partnership Program?

SH: The Schools Partnership Program is successful due to adult and student involvement. It changes the environment at your school by facilitating inclusion. It’s important to realize that a Schools Partnership Program expands and grows year after year, once word spreads about the program and the positive experiences that arise out of it.

1 Why do you continue to stay involved with Special Olympics in the schools?

SH: Without the Special Olympics Schools Partnership Program in my schools, it would be just too easy for everyone to slip back into their cubby holes and never interact, and I, for one, do not want that.

Congratulations, Mrs. Houston! We are thankful for you!