Pairing up to build an inclusive future
For more than 50 years, Special Olympics has played a leading role in creating a more inclusive world for people with intellectual disabilities. The effort is much broader than the organization’s renowned athletic competitions: It’s an ongoing, grassroots movement that happens every day across more than 190 countries and jurisdictions. But spreading the message of inclusion on a global scale doesn’t happen without obstacles.
What we see now as we move into the next 50 years of Special Olympics is that we need young people to be leaders—not 50 years from now, but right now.Soeren Palumbo, Vice President of Global Youth Engagement
Soeren Palumbo, Vice President of Global Youth Engagement at Special Olympics International, understands these obstacles all too well. Growing up, he witnessed the discrimination that his sister Olivia faced as a person with an intellectual disability—which inspired Soeren to become an advocate. He understands that unity and inclusion can only be achieved if young people create the groundswell. “If ten years from now we want doctors who are more inclusive, teachers who are more inclusive, law enforcement officers who are more inclusive, any type of professional who is more inclusive, that work starts now,” says Palumbo. Special Olympics is cultivating a generation of youth leaders from Finland to Mexico. The organization is empowering them to spread the mission of inclusion in their schools and communities through its Global Youth Leadership program.
The program brings together Unified pairs—meaning one person with an intellectual disability and one person without—like Simran Sanhi and Shrey Kadian from Special Olympics Bharat (India), who are working to integrate schools throughout India.
Since 2001, Special Olympics has been inviting Unified pairs like Simran and Shrey to annual Global Youth Leadership Summits for a wide range of training and community-building activities. They emerge with new skills, new friends, and newfound inspiration. These human connections are especially vital for people with intellectual disabilities because, as Soeren puts it, “one of the most common experiences of intellectual disability is isolation”. The Summits build a sense of community, but logistically and financially, it’s impossible for the organization to bring together all 70,000 youth leaders from around the world. For youth leaders who attend a Summit, it’s a further challenge to keep the experience alive throughout the year. With new digital tools, Special Olympics has an opportunity to truly connect these young global leaders in an ongoing movement for change.
For the first time this year, Special Olympics is bringing youth leaders together virtually. Microsoft Teams is one of the tools helping them stay connected and motivated, with more than 600 of the young changemakers already using the platform. Teams helps bridge geographic, cultural, and cognitive differences with its language and translation features. The digital connection is helping Unified pairs feel empowered to share their authentic selves, nurture relationships, and foster inclusion in real time. Simran and Shrey exchange ideas and build community with other youth leaders through small, everyday moments. Sometimes it’s offering observations or experiences from their own communities so that fellow youth leaders around the world can use Simran and Shrey’s insight to improve their own outreach. Other times, it’s as simple as sending an animated GIF for some encouragement (or a laugh).
"There was a lot of motivation that faded out with time because that only happens when we’ve been together. Teams really helps us continue that motivation."
- Simran Sanhi
With Special Olympics to support them and technology to extend their capabilities, these Unified pairs are proving to be unstoppable. Simran and Shrey have already surpassed their initial goal and worked with seven schools across India by sharing their story and a passion for unity—and helping other students to spread the message of inclusion themselves. The pair shows no signs of slowing down. Thanks to an unmistakable friendship, Simran and Shrey, along with their peers around the globe, are bringing the Special Olympics longstanding mission of inclusion to life each and every day.
"Communication is very, very important because we are role models for India and get to share a new idea and a new mindset with the upcoming generation."
- Shrey Kadian
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Changing the world through sport—and technology
Learn more about how Microsoft technology is supporting the Special Olympics and their mission, empowering athletes of all abilities.