Innovation for Inclusion

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

The following post was written by Soeren Palumbo, Vice President of Global Youth Engagement at Special Olympics.

Clockwise from top: Participants in a Unified Bike Ride in Indonesia, youth signing an inclusion banner in Mexico, participants playing floorball in Estonia, and participants sharing the jewelry in Ghana.

The greatest innovators are connectors. They identify the sometimes unseen separations between ideas, places, people and envision the missing connection and build the bridge. As much as it is a journey into the unknown, innovation is the audacious act of connecting that which is known but thought to be separate.

At its finest, innovation is an act of inclusion.

And so during this World Innovation and Creativity Week, it is fitting to share and celebrate some of our world’s greatest and boldest innovators: Special Olympics Youth Leaders. They are advancing the cause of inclusion in their communities in creative, inventive, and — yes — innovative ways.

Starting in 2018, Special Olympics Youth Leaders stepped forward to lead projects in their communities to build the bridges between people with and without intellectual disabilities and create mindsets of inclusion amongst their peers. Since 2018, over 150 Special Olympics community-based projects for inclusion led by youth with and without intellectual disabilities have begun in over 60 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe.

The projects have a diversity fitting to an initiative across 60+ countries. In Hawaii, USA, Britney is building on her experience as a Special Olympics athlete, youth leader, and current high school student to bring opportunities of inclusion to younger students with and without intellectual disabilities. For Britney, creating attitudes and mindsets of inclusion must begin at an early age, so she organized and led an inclusive sport day for elementary school students in her community in Maui. In Albania, Sara has worked to facilitate opportunities for students who will become some of the future gatekeepers of inclusion — teachers, coaches — to meet their peers with intellectual disabilities and work together to create practical plans for inclusion through sport and other outlets in Tirana and other parts of the country. In Zimbabwe, Nyasha and Wadzanai hosted an inclusive fair of dance, fitness, and art to provide youth in their community with and without intellectual disability with an opportunity to express their vision for inclusion.

Youth Leaders posing with an athlete at a Unified Sports experience in Albania

These acts of innovation are diverse in their execution but share a common thread, no matter what part of the world: an inclusive alternative to the divided world we all see. A youth-led challenge to the status quo stigma. Theirs is a growing generation bound not by geography or genealogy but by a belief: That the marginalized shouldn’t be excluded. That the shunned should be welcomed. And they’ve chosen the world’s most recalcitrant prejudice as their target: the discrimination against those with intellectual disabilities. Around the world, this generation of Youth Leaders is presenting an audacious challenge: that people with intellectual disabilities — the most shunned, the most marginalized — are valuable co-leaders, colleagues, co-humans, and should be included. Full stop.

Their cause is extraordinary. Casting aside a stigma as old as human civilization warrants so strong a term.

Peers rallying around a Unified Sports participant at a school in Washington, USA

These young leaders with and without intellectual disabilities have decided that a stigma that did not start with them should end with them. They do not care for the cultural baggage of those who came before — those who somehow could not embrace their fellow human beings. If anything, this failure of the preceding generation confuses them. How could this co-humanity have been missed? How could those who came before have thought that neurodiversity was best met with isolation and exclusion and apathy and neglect? Past generations shepherded a stigma forward, handing it to their children as it had been handed to them. But no more.

To build the bridge when those before only saw the divide is an act of innovation. The creative power of these young leaders is building something that has never existed: A world in which people of all abilities are valued and included.

And they hope you join them. They hope you ask yourself, should there be more inclusion in this world or less — and urge you to choose the former. They hope you ask yourself, should I do something about it or not — and urge you to choose the former. They hope you choose to include.

Youth Leaders gather together at a Unified Sports experience in Uzbekistan

With these young leaders around the world as models, we can all choose to build connections between those that have been separate.

We can all be innovators for inclusion.

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