The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let students with disabilities compete in sports with their peers

Shawn Campbell makes her long-jump attempt at the Special Olympics D.C. Summer Games on May 21, 2013, in Washington.
Shawn Campbell makes her long-jump attempt at the Special Olympics D.C. Summer Games on May 21, 2013, in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Timothy Perry Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics.

The question isn’t whether we are a nation divided by anger and fear. The question is what we’re going to do about it.

The news and social media obsessively detail how we all hate one another, presenting a fresh new hell each week. But there is another story taking hold in our country: Young people have found an antidote to divisiveness. They are uniting around a new idea, drawing closer, jump-starting friendships, breaking down social barriers and bringing outsiders in.

The idea is a new kind of school sports team in which athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play together. It may sound radical, but it’s incredibly simple. And it’s happening right now, through a growing program called Special Olympics Unified Sports. Schools that “play unified” have shown stunning improvements in their climates of tolerance, with more participation and less bullying.

Tens of thousands of athletes participate in unified sports, in more than 6,400 elementary, middle and high schools across the United States. It should be millions.

America needs a wholesale embrace of unified sports in every school. It would be like a new version of Title IX, the federal law that outlawed discrimination by sex and opened doors to athletics for countless girls and women. What Title IX did to shatter barriers for one group of excluded athletes should now be done for young people with disabilities — for the benefit of everyone. Traditional girls’ and boys’ teams will continue to exist as they are in schools across the United States with the only change being the addition of unified teams composed of students with and without disabilities to the mix of sports offerings. 

A 21st century Title IX that promotes unified sports across the land wouldn’t require an act of Congress. State legislatures and local boards and councils could get behind it, as could schools and student leaders, who could help spread it widely through persuasion and the force of example.

If they’re looking for models, they would do well to start at Ponaganset High School in Rhode Island. At Ponaganset, student leaders launched their own campaign to counter bullying and to end a climate of tension and hostility. They wanted to change how they felt about one another and create a school where every student felt inspired and included.

Their campaign was defined by a pledge that every student makes: “As a member of the Ponaganset community, I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion. I choose to include!”

The Ponaganset Chieftains — who play on boys’, girls’ and unified teams — are exemplary but not unique. Every high school in Rhode Island has some form of unified sports.

Ending fear and division is a tall order in this anxious world. But it’s not a new one. Special Olympics has been working on this problem for 50 years. Our athletes themselves have led the charge, joined by parents, educators and volunteers. And here is what we’ve found: Inclusion can be taught. It can be learned. And when nurtured, it can take root as a belief system rather than as passing kindness. It can become embedded in a person’s core values, just like respect, empathy and citizenship.

Fortunately, it seems the vast majority of young people today are already more inclusive than any other generation in history. They want their schools and communities to be as inclusive as they are. And these young people are willing to lead, if we give them the chance.

Exclusion is still real for millions. And those best equipped to lead an inclusion revolution are, not surprisingly, those who have experienced exclusion firsthand — those with intellectual disabilities or who know what it’s like to be ridiculed and marginalized. They are our teachers, because they have the authority of experience.

So here is their formula for countering our national despair: meet. Meet those who are different. Meet in situations of fun and friendship. Play together. Join a team. Create common ground. Learn a skill together. Challenge yourselves to support one another. And then repeat and share, and repeat again. And slowly, fears and labels recede, and what’s left is just another human being, eager to matter, eager to contribute, eager to belong.

We can live in a time of joyful and fearless inclusion instead of the rot of resentment that now prevails. It can’t come soon enough.

Read more:

Lennard Davis and David Perry: Protecting people with disabilities is not optional

Rebecca Cokley: Please don’t edit me out

Ruth Marcus: I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.

George F. Will: The real Down syndrome problem: Accepting genocide