Kicking Off the Special Olympics Winter Games in South Korea

Special Olympics Opening Ceremony

Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, was on hand for the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea. Photo courtesy of the Special Olympics.

Participating in sports – through both training and competition – promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being. Special Olympics not only provides the opportunity for individuals with intellectual disabilities to realize these benefits, but promotes dignity, respect, and the opportunity for fuller social inclusion.

Over the past several days, I’ve been fortunate to join more than 2,300 athletes and their coaches from over 110 countries in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, for the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. The Games, which include competition in events such as skiing, skating, snowboarding, and floor hockey, is also a celebration of the spirit of the Special Olympics.

I have had the privilege to meet athletes and their families from towns and cities across the United States, as well as athletes from Morocco, New Zealand, Egypt, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and of course Korea.

One athlete here in Korea is Chase from Salt Lake City. Chase, from the day he was born, wanted to play sports, yearned to achieve and excel in sports. But the community programs just didn’t cut it for him. According to his mom, with Special Olympics, his whole life changed. He has far exceeded her expectations and truly is a “rock star,” she said.

Vivienne from Montana is also representing the United States during the Games. Vivienne’s parents set the bar high for their daughter. The phrase “can’t” was simply not acceptable. As the Olympic torch made its way toward Yongpyong Dome for the Games’ opening ceremonies, Vivienne was there to carry the torch on one of the final legs of the flame’s journey.

While sports provide great benefits, Special Olympics is much more. Special Olympics’ Project UNIFY supports schools in becoming more inclusive to those with disabilities through athletics and other activities. The U.S. Department of Education reinforced this mission last week with new guidance clarifying a school’s existing obligations to provide students with disabilities opportunities to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs.

Here in Korea, thousands of athletes, families, students, educators, advocates, and politicians convened to do more than just play sports. It’s a call to action.

Global Youth Summit Participants

Participants at the Special Olympics Global Youth Summit.

It’s estimated that there are approximately 200 million people with intellectual disabilities globally – and too many of them experience poverty and exclusion.

World leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma and President Joyce Banda from Malawi, addressed barriers and social hurdles people with intellectual disabilities face, and importantly, solutions to end the cycle of poverty and exclusion that they and their families face.

During the Global Youth Summit that accompanied the Games, we learned about the latest developments in innovative sports programming for young children with intellectual disabilities ages 2-7, helping these children strengthen physical development and self-esteem. I am truly inspired by the young people from around the world, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are committed to inclusion and acceptance in schools and communities.

The Summit provided youth with opportunities to acquire and enhance leadership and advocacy skills for themselves, their peers, their schools, and their communities. The summit also included a rally with over 900 young people from Korea and around the world celebrating Special Olympic athletes, and children with and without disabilities around the world.

In a moving speech during the Summit, Rahma Aly, a Special Olympics athlete from Egypt, summed up the spirit of the games and the mission of the Special Olympics. “Love, understanding, believing and willing to accept others, no matter how different they are is my message,” Aly said. “Don’t consider us different, we are part of this society, we can help, participate and succeed.”

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities

Playing sports at any level—club, intramural, or interscholastic—can be a key part of the school experience and have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life. Among its many benefits, participation in extracurricular athletic activities promotes socialization, the development of leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. It’s no secret that sports helped to shape my life. From a very early age, playing basketball taught me valuable lessons about grit, discipline, and teamwork that are still with me to this day.

Duncan signs a basketball

Secretary Duncan signs a basketball before a stop during the 2012 back-to-school bus tour. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Students with disabilities are no different – like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion. This is simply wrong. While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.  Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities.

Today, ED’s Office for Civil Rights has released guidance that clarifies existing legal obligations of schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs. We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. This guidance builds on a resource document the Department issued in 2011 that provides important information on improving opportunities for children and youth with disabilities to access PE and athletics.

Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else. The guidance issued today will help schools meet this obligation and will allow increasing numbers of kids with disabilities the chance to benefit from playing sports.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Read the “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Civil Rights

Discussing Special Education Teacher Prep at Eastern Michigan

Last Friday, I had a great opportunity to participate in a roundtable at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) on special education teacher preparation, recruitment and retention. With six other distinguished panelists that included a state and district representative, an EMU faculty member, a current EMU teacher candidate, a parent and a local teacher representative, we all agreed that integrating some of the preparation of general and special educators was of paramount importance.

For two hours, we shared data on current recruitment and retention rates and best practices for long-term retention.  One of these practices included the need for a strong induction and mentoring program. Michigan currently has a mandatory three-year mentoring program, 15 additional days of professional development, and regional seminars that allow them to hear from and connect to master teachers as they begin their teaching careers. What a great exemplar!

We also discussed the steps EMU is taking to make teacher preparation more successful and how important it is to align university training with what teachers are expected to do in their classrooms. Traditionally, general education and special education teachers have been trained separately, yet as we continue to move towards more inclusive settings, EMU will collaborate to ensure that programs are working together and general and special education are no longer “housed” in separate silos.

During and following the roundtable, I had a chance to chat with some of the over 250 attendees. Some of the topics of interest to audience members included the economic implications of inclusive practices and the need for financial incentives for teachers, especially as we work to increase the number of youth who choose to become special educators.  As I mingled through the crowd, I was excited to meet so many teacher candidates who participated in this event. I want to extend a special thanks to those who participated and remind all of you that investing in education is investing in our future!

Alexa Posny is Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Physical Fitness for All

Students gather in the gym at Oxon Hill Elementary

Throughout May, the White House and Department of Education have celebrated Physical Fitness and Sports month—an annual reminder to us all of the importance of physical activity in our daily life. Yesterday, I  joined Andrea Cernich with the President’ s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition on a visit to Oxon Hill Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Md., to talk with district officials, school leaders, teachers, parents, and others about how students with disabilities can fully participate in the school’s physical education and sports programs.

Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report that found students with disabilities participated in athletics at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.

Adapting physical activities for students with disabilities requires extra resources—time, money and expertise. In schools that fully include students with disabilities in physical instruction and athletics, stakeholders and decision makers have found those resources and applied them to benefit all students in the school.

Students Exercising at Oxon Hill ElementaryWhen I walked into the Oxon Hill Elementary gymnasium yesterday, I knew that I was seeing a shining example of inclusive physical education programming. The school’s Comprehensive Special Education Program ensures that all of the school’s 100 plus students with disabilities are included in general academic and physical education classes.  I practiced my ability to jump right and left and backwards and forward along with a group of second graders in a Dance, Dance Revolution class. I saw how expertly the general physical education teacher and an adapted physical education teacher had worked together to plan and execute a seamless lesson that fully included each of the 30 students in the lesson, including students with disabilities.

I encourage everyone to learn more about Oxon Hill Elementary’s program and others like it. Together, we can share strategies for fully engaging every child in schools’ physical fitness programming and athletics.

For more tips, resources and information on ways parents, teachers and community members can join forces to keep students active, fit and healthy, connect with the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

Alexa Posny is the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education.

Arne Answers Questions from the Council for Exceptional Children

“In order to win the future, President Obama has challenged us that we must enable every single American to reach their potential,” said Secretary Duncan in a recent Q&A with members of the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC). “Every child, regardless of income, race, background, or disability can learn and must learn, and our system of education must embrace this core belief every day in every way possible.”

Secretary Duncan asked the CEC to contact its members and find out their most pressing questions. The Secretary worked with his staff to answer those questions in a Q&A document released today that coincides with the opening day of The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) 2011 Convention and Expo. The Secretary addressed pay-for-performance, inclusion, teacher accountability, and the development and support for universal design concepts.

The Secretary explained that “We want to model the best practices that we know are most effective, and at the top of that list of best practices is one simple word: inclusion. When we set high expectations, students with disabilities can excel. Students with disabilities, like everyone else, must be college- and career-ready because we know that the good jobs of the future will require more than a high-school diploma. With a high-quality education, children with disabilities will be self-sufficient and will be able to live independently.”

Visit the CEC’s “Ask Arne” page for the entire Q&A between CEC members and Secretary Duncan.

Hold Fast to Dreams: Helping All Students Succeed

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Enjoy this great new video highlighting Secretary Duncan’s visit to Beers Elementary last Monday and his speech to the American Association of People with Disabilities Conference the following night.  During his speech, the Secretary explained:

For too long, the answer to educating students with disabilities was to isolate them and to deny them the same educational experiences that others were having, and thankfully, those days are over. The fact is 60% of our students with disabilities spend 80% of their time in the regular school environment. That’s real progress, and there’s absolutely no reason that those numbers should not continue to rise as more and more teachers know how to effectively work with students with disabilities.

Inclusive Schools

Image of Alexa PosnyWhen I was in kindergarten, my neighborhood friends and I waved goodbye to our families and set off for our first day of school. All except one. My friend with down syndrome didn’t board the bus with us that day. I didn’t know why she wasn’t allowed to come, but I did know that it wasn’t fair or right.

A lot has changed since then. On Monday, Arne and I visited Beers Elementary in D.C., one example of the thousands of American schools where students with disabilities participate in general education classrooms and are expected to learn as much as every other student in the room. The next day, I went to Delaware, where I talked with a group of over 600 people who believe in the power of inclusion and the positive difference it makes for students with and without disabilities.

We know that children are more alike than different. We know that given the right supports, every child can thrive. That’s why we want to make sure that ESEA includes all children, including those with disabilities, and that Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) services provide the supports — expert teachers and highly trained related services personnel, proven practices, effective models, deft technologies, among others — to help students with disabilities achieve challenging standards.

I truly believe that we are all in this together and that we must collaborate to create a system that can meet the needs of each of our nation’s 50 million students, including the six million students with disabilities attending our schools.

Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Duncan and Team Get First-hand Look at Successful Inclusion of Students with Disabilities

Photo of Secretary Duncan and Asst. Secretary Posny visiting a classroom

Secretary Duncan and Asst. Secretary Posny visit a SAM classroom at Beers Elementary School.

Secretary Arne Duncan and ED’s Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Alexa Posny, stopped by Beers Elementary School in Washington, DC yesterday to get a close-up look at one school that is successfully integrating students with disabilities into the school culture.

Beers Elementary is one of 16 public schools in the District of Columbia that participate in the Schoolwide Applications Model (SAM), an inclusive education program that engages the entire school staff and works to achieve a safe and orderly learning environment in which all students receive the supports they need, including students with disabilities.  Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Posny visited a 2nd Grade and 4th Grade SAM classroom and also participated in a roundtable discussion with DC school administrators, teachers and parents.

One of the takeaways from the Beers visit is how closely the staff work together, and how such teamwork is positively affecting student achievement.  Katherine Chesterson, one of Beers’ support teachers, explained that teachers at the school aren’t working in a silo, and that they are constantly reinforcing each other as well as the positive behavior of all the students. One of the roundtable participants described what the teachers are doing at Beers as “something pretty special.”

Jeffery Brown, a school counselor at Beers, noted that the most impressive part of the SAM model is that the school reflects the environment students will encounter beyond school. The world, Brown said, doesn’t have “two parts of society, where there is a general part of society and a special part of society.”  Beers Principal Gwendolyn Payton explained that when you go to the neighborhood grocery store, there isn’t a separate cash register marked “special.” Life doesn’t have two categories of citizens, so why should schools?

Secretary Duncan will address the importance of inclusion in a keynote address later this evening at the American Association of People with Disabilities conference.  Below is a behind-the-scenes look at yesterday’s visit.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.