Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools Empower Next Generation of Young Leaders to Create Inclusive Communities 

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

For International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, 2022, we invited guest contributor Andrea Cahn to share a perspective. This is her blog post:

Since 1992, the official observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) occurs on December 3 and promotes the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of life. According to the United Nations, “the observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.” This year’s IDPD theme focuses the world’s attention on a core priority of Special Olympics: “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fueling an accessible and equitable world.”  

Since its inception in 2008, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® has been empowering young people, educators, coaches, and families as leaders for inclusion, starting in their local schools and communities around the world. Our year-round programming creates sports, leadership, and whole school engagement opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities (ID). The Unified Champion Schools impact extends to more than 8,000 schools throughout the U.S. and 10,000 in the world. As many as 3.6 million young people are taking part in inclusive experiences through Special Olympics. 

Unfortunately, even with these successes, young people in prominent cities – where many of the most underserved populations reside – are not able to access these programs.  With national attention to the inequities that exist for underserved communities, the time is right for systematic approaches to position schools – in particular city schools – to be models of what’s possible. 

Launched during the 2021-2022 school year, the innovative Unified Champion City Schools initiative is a focused approach to amplify the essential elements of Unified Champion Schools programming within city school districts and is a top priority for the Special Olympics North America Region. While all city schools are part of the Unified Champion Schools effort to promote and nurture inclusive schools, the needs and challenges in many under-resourced communities are amplified and often require a different approach. As we continue to meaningfully address these disparities, we hosted the first-ever Unified Champion City Schools Thought Leadership Summit to create a space to share knowledge and lessons as we grow and expand into new neighborhoods. 

Held August 4-7 during the Special Olympics 2022 Unified Cup, the Summit brought together more than 175 inclusive youth leaders, educators, community partners, and Special Olympics staff for an engaging time of learning and relationship building. The Summit included participants representing more than 25 Unified Champion City Schools locations around the nation. 

Mobilizing Inclusive Leaders 

The Summit consisted of two primary tracks, the Youth Leadership track (student leaders) and the Thought Leadership track (Special Olympics Program staff, teachers, district leaders). Throughout the Summit, the youth explored the concept of leadership and discovered the tools needed to become inclusive leaders. With these new skills, they developed a project plan for how they will take what they learned back to their communities and schools.  

The Thought Leadership track connected adult attendees and provided a deeper understanding of Unified Champion Schools and practical implementation strategies to help advance the work within their school and district. Leaders in this track gained value by sharing ideas and hearing from others while working together toward recommendations.   

Looking Ahead 

As we continue to grow Unified communities across the country, events like the Summit allowed us to make significant strides in our efforts toward an advancement of the inclusion movement for all students. While the Summit was an eye-opening and inspiring experience, we know there’s still much work to be done to improve school environments for all students.  

Today on International Day of Persons with Disabilities and every day, we encourage you to step up your game for inclusion. Young people may join a Special Olympics Unified Sports® team which brings together people with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and those without intellectual disabilities (partners) on sports teams for training and competition. Educators are encouraged to advocate for and support Unified programming in schools. As a parent or caregiver, you can become a volunteer, coach, fund-raiser, and official — giving you an important voice in Special Olympics. Everyone plays a part in fueling an accessible and equitable world. 

To learn more and get involved, visit: https://www.generationunified.org/.    


Andrea Cahn is the Vice President of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®. She has been with Special Olympics for 33 years and has held a variety of leadership roles in communications, program development, strategy development, and government relations. She is the lead for Unified Schools in the Special Olympics North America Region and responsible for the major partnership with the U.S. Department of Education that promotes social inclusion by creating model schools of acceptance through the innovative implementation of Special Olympics Unified Sports®, inclusive youth leadership, and other school wide education and awareness activities.  

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® is a strategy in 8,000 schools Pre-K through university across the U.S. that intentionally promotes social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities through Special Olympics Unified Sports®, inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and whole school engagement. The three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people with the knowledge, skills, tools, and training to create classrooms and school climates of acceptance, respect, and meaningful inclusion. Engage with us on: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. Learn more at GenerationUnified.org.