Former Special Olympics Bharat youth leader and intern, Tanmay Agarwal, has been integral to the growth of the Unified Generation in New Delhi, India. Now studying physics at the University of Minnesota, Tanmay continues to embrace his love for the organization through his continued involvement with Special Olympics Minnesota. Unified Voices for a Unified Generation sat down with Tanmay to learn more about his perspective on what it means to be a young leader at the forefront of the global movement for inclusion.
How would you describe your involvement with Special Olympics in 60 seconds?
In 2012, I started as a youth leader with the Special Olympics Bharat Youth Activation Committee. My school became increasingly involved, and I led workshops for other schools interested in Special Olympics around our district. During my internship with Special Olympics Bharat in 2017, I developed and launched a project called Pratishtha involving athletes and youth leaders to educate the greater community about the organization and to invite them to come play Unified sports. Currently, I am studying at the University of Minnesota, and I have joined the Special Olympics club on campus and started working directly with Special Olympics Minnesota.
How were you first introduced to Special Olympics?
I was in grade six and my teacher mentioned that a Special Olympics event was looking for volunteers. I used to be that kid in school who would jump at anything, so I joined three other students from my school to volunteer. I was introduced to Special Olympics youth activation programs and learned about the mission of the organization. After that, I volunteered at more Special Olympics events and my school began to take a lead by hosting workshops for schools around our district.
What inspired your further involvement with Special Olympics Bharat?
By working with the organization, I really saw myself change over the years. Before I was involved with Special Olympics, I had never really interacted with a special person before. I had all the general stereotypes in my mind — that special people can’t really do a lot, need help all the time, and lack the certain talent that “mainstream” people have. I came in with those preconceptions and as I interacted with a lot of special athletes from my country, I realized that my perceptions changed. We have so much to learn from these special people. If I can go through this radical change in my own understanding, I believe other people can too. I want to do my best to make sure that can happen.
What leadership experiences have you had with Special Olympics?
The most important leadership training I attended was the Special Olympics Leadership Academy for two days. It was a really different and new learning experience for me.
Last summer when I was interning with Special Olympics Bharat, I organized an event called Pratishtha (which means prestige in Hindi) that was completely open to the public. This was a great awareness point to share the mission of Special Olympics. Our Special Olympics Bharat athletes won over 275 medals in the last summer games. In the mainstream Olympics, athletes representing India won a total of 3 medals. The recognition our special athletes receive is far less than other athletes. We contacted these Special Olympics athletes, brought them to a local park, and set up volleyball, cricket, and weightlifting stations. Anyone who came to the park could play with these Olympic-medal winning athletes. Students and teachers had the opportunity to interact with the Special Olympics athletes.
People who were not associated with the event would play with our athletes. It was a completely new experience for them. Reaching out to new people in our community was one of the best things we were able to accomplish with that event.
How are you involved with Special Olympics at the University of Minnesota?
We have a Special Olympics club at the University of Minnesota. We have general meetings and organize a few events in conjunction with the state Special Olympics office including a Polar Plunge and 5k run. Personally, I am working more closely with the state Special Olympics Program. A lot of my experience with Special Olympics has been in event management, so that is what I am currently working on with Special Olympics Minnesota.
Can you describe what inclusion looks like in India — in terms of education, sports, and in the greater community? With the establishment of Special Olympics programming, have you noticed changes in the perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities?
India has different types of schools. There are schools that do not offer any support for special students — most schools fall under this category. Inclusive schools offer support for students with intellectual disabilities and incorporate inclusive classes and inclusive sports teams. Special schools exists and are exclusively for special students. Special Olympics Bharat works with all three types of schools.
My school did not offer any support for students with special abilities. Special Olympics Bharat put us in touch with a school for special students and we had meet-up sessions and events. With this connection, we were able to interact with special students and have a mutual learning process. Special Olympics is creating change through awareness. I feel that we are reaching out to more and more people over time. In the past, we would say “Special Olympics” and people wouldn’t know what it meant or what the organization is about. At my school and others throughout New Delhi — a lot of students and parents have now developed an understanding of Special Olympics.
What does it mean to be part of the Unified Generation?
I think our generation has a lot of potential. When I started working with Special Olympics when I was 12 years, I was part of a group of four students from my school. After that, our school took forward the initiative and now we have a much bigger club with lots of students involved.
Our generation really likes to bring about and work together to create positive change in our society. I have seen that it is a chain reaction. With the objective of the Unified Generation, we are working towards a time where special and mainstream don’t really mean anything anymore. We won’t have these walls and we will all recognize the differences that are between us. We won’t perceive these differences as hinderances, but we will celebrate them. Our generation is at a good point because we know what stereotypes and preconceptions are in the minds of past generations. We have the ability to see how they are wrong and see the potential that lies ahead with this Special Olympics program. We can act as a bridge between those who understand and those who aren’t willing to understand, and we can be the ones that bring about this change.
Slowly and steadily, Special Olympics is bringing about change. It is the small tides that create the waves. In a couple of years, we will begin to see these waves.