Making People Real | GUEST OPINION

You may have seen the news article recently about the growing popularity of unified sports teams, a wonderful collaboration between high schools across the country and Special Olympics.

Unified sports combines students from special education programs with general education students on high school athletic and cheerleading teams. Uniforms, practices, Friday night games in a gym packed with students, the whole deal. What a magnificent evolutionary shift beyond the segregation and separation that have characterized school and sports for so long.

According to the article, “These unified teams are upending high school’s archetypal and often cruel social order. Largely invisible in the past, special education students now slap hands with lettermen in the hallways, chat with new friends and live a high school existence that ‘feels normal,’ said one parent.”

As one Special Olympics official put it, “Our athletes have an unconditional appreciation for other people. They persevere even in the face of being bullied and teased. We can pull back the veil of the unknown and make people real.” These are qualities that have a profound effect on the student athletes involved, transformative qualities not likely to be found anywhere else in the experience of the typical high school student.

The principal of a Colorado school told the reporter that “unified has transformed the culture of this school. It was almost as if these kids weren’t noticed before we began doing this. I don’t think anyone realized how powerful they are.”

Exactly so. These high school students are learning that, behind the “veil of the unknown” involving physical and behavioral differences, people with developmental conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and so on also offer a unique power to evoke qualities in the rest of us. But this power can only be accessed to the extent that we engage one another in activities that are important to us.

We see this all the time in our own organization. Children in inclusive preschool classrooms teach each other to the point where a visitor has no clue which children are “typical” and which children are “disabled” as labels become meaningless. We have watched children teach a peer whose development was delayed by a traumatic brain injury how to eat (“Like this!”). We have watched children teach each other empathy, how to talk, how to play, and how to be friends. Our experience is that the growth and learning of all children is amplified by diversity and the emergent qualities evoked by inclusion.

In our businesses we see that when people of all abilities work together in production and customer service, qualities are evoked in the whole organization that translate directly into bottom line performance, employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. Over and over again we have seen employees and trainees of all abilities blossom when they work together in integrated environments, sharing the same high expectations, challenged with a progression of new job skills.

Take for example the growth of one trainee who was essentially nonverbal and not engaged before she joined an integrated work pod on our production floor. She is now the absolute picture of a journeyman production worker on whom employers, teammates, and customers can count to deliver value and quality. The whole work pod thrives on and with her success.

Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the increasing diversity and inclusiveness of our workforce and the improving financial performance of our businesses. This correlation is not a coincidence — for the same reasons participants in unified high school sports teams are discovering for themselves. Inclusion amplifies power that is already there in each of us — power that turns into new ways of playing the game or doing the job or satisfying the customer.

When people of all abilities engage each other fully in activity that matters — participating on a real team in a real game in front of our peers, or doing real work of real importance that is valued by real customers — we all benefit by becoming real to each other, and to ourselves.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.


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