To give children and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities equitable access to the care and meaningful activities that are every child's right, UNICEF teamed up with Special Olympics in 2007. Since then, through inclusive programs in over 40 nations, Special Olympics and UNICEF have used sports programming to advance the rights of kids with disabilities, highlighting their strengths and many contributions to their communities and countries. UNICEF USA has supported collaborative UNICEF and Special Olympics programs since 2015, reaching over 15,000 children and their caretakers in 12 countries.
The partnership in action
Special Olympics and UNICEF partner to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities by delivering services, including:
Unified Sports: This program — for kids 8 years old and up — promotes social inclusion through sports training and competition, allowing children and young people with and without intellectual disabilities to play on the same team, building friendships and bonds that can last a lifetime.
Healthy Athletes: Free comprehensive health screenings for all participating Special Olympics athletes is just one of this program’s benefits. Designed to enhance medical and health care workers' sensitivity towards special needs populations, Healthy Athletes provides many Special Olympians with their first thorough medical examination.
Young Athletes: This fun and inclusive sport and play program brings 2- to 7-year-old children together to give kids with and without disabilities the chance to participate in activities and games designed for all skill levels.
Family Health Forums: A complement to the Young Athletes program. These forums, which offer health-promotion tips and educational resources, teach family members to maintain their child’s health and support their growth and development.
Job Readiness: Job skills training is essential to helping all young people enter the workforce. It's especially critical for youth with disabilities.
Advocating for inclusion
Children who learn, play and live in inclusive environments form bonds around shared interests that lead to friendships that can have a lifelong impact. Inclusive environments foster acceptance, honor differences, promote empathy, decrease bullying, build self-esteem and so much more.
One of the most passionate advocates for inclusion is Special Olympics–UNICEF USA partnership spokesperson Lucy Meyer. Since 2015, Lucy has traveled the world to advocate for young people with disabilities and the partnership's programs that support them.
Lucy is a role model for countless individuals worldwide. Her call for a global commitment to inclusive development only strengthens all nations’ work to achieve the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals on behalf of children of all abilities.
"Our world can be tough for all kids, but especially kids who are labeled as different," says Lucy, a five-time Special Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer who has cerebral palsy. Through Special Olympics, she has participated in Unified Sports, a program that includes athletes with and without disabilities, ages 8 and up, on the same team.
I love this partnership because it helps more kids experience the opportunities I have had. — Lucy Meyer, Special Olympics–UNICEF USA Partnership Spokesperson
"This has changed my life," continues Lucy, commending UNICEF and Special Olympics' work with governments around the world to deliver such life-changing solutions as Unified Sports to all kids. "When UNICEF works together with Special Olympics in other countries, inclusive programs impact so many more kids than either could do alone. I love this partnership because it helps more kids experience the opportunities I have had."
Lucy speaks regularly about inclusion at schools and events across the U.S. and around the world. One of her key messages is that starting kids out playing unified sports at an early age is the most effective way to fight stigma. Lucy also strives to create a safe space where people can ask such questions as "What’s it like having a disability?" and "Why do you like playing sports with kids who don’t have disabilities?"
The partnership during COVID-19
In humanitarian emergencies, children with disabilities are among those most at risk. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF and Special Olympics have worked to meet the needs and protect the rights of children and young people with disabilities through access to educational devices, health supplies, community organization and advocacy.
Top photo: When kindergartens in Montenegro closed at the height of the pandemic, UNICEF, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Sports and Youth helped the Special Olympics launch the Young Athletes at Home program to keep children with disabilities active, stimulated and happy during the school suspensions. © Dusko Miljanic for UNICEF Montenegro