From September 3 – 6, 2019, Special Olympics hosted athlete leaders and Unified partners in Washington D.C. for a Unified Leadership Workshop. Unified Leadership focuses on both leaders with and without intellectual disabilities (ID) to develop their mindsets and skills. Special Olympics is working hard to improve opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to succeed in meaningful roles in businesses and organizations.
Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Christine Cherne and Unified partner Jeanne Hrovat attended the workshop and Christine Cherne has written about the experience. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
By Christine Cherne
When Jeanne Hrovat asked me if she could nominate me for the Unified Leadership workshop, I said, “yes let’s go for it!”
That took courage, because I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Jeanne and I flew out on a Tuesday Sept 3, 2019 to Washington D.C. When we arrived at our hotel, the workshop began. We had meetings from 2:00 p.m. – 5 p.m. where we met athlete leaders and staff from SO Iowa, SO Wyoming, SO Colorado, SO Minnesota, SO Ohio, SO Indiana, SO Southern California, SO Nebraska, SO South Dakota, SO Rhode Island, and SO Texas.
Through different meetings and activities, we learned about and discussed Unified Leadership and how it can make an impact in the world.
Unified Leadership is a holistic approach that focuses on both leaders with and without a disability, developing their mindsets and skills to create the best possible environment for people with ID to succeed in meaningful roles and activities. I believe Unified Leadership means “Grow Leaders to Succeed.”
Notice that didn’t say anything about people with ID – I think it means growing all people to be leaders. Unified Leadership is the evolution of years of learning from Special Olympics athletes and working with them to become leaders. Through this work, we have realized that it is also important to work on the mindsets of leaders without disabilities, because their attitudes and actions have a huge impact.
Unified Leadership is grounded in the social model, the idea that it is society’s responsibility to adapt so that people with disabilities can live to their full potential. It starts with building that capacity and skills of people with intellectual disabilities through training. They connect with leaders without disabilities, who listen, engage and learn from the interactions, and experience a powerful mindset change. Unified Leadership works because it turns the ‘norm’ on its head – people with intellectual disabilities are the teachers, influencing others to be different.
When people without a disability learn from the achievements, strength and resilience of Special Olympics leaders, it leads to a different perspective. Unified leaders develop an understanding of leadership where relationships come before results, everyone has value, vulnerabilities are accepted, and power is shared rather than exercised. The result is adaptation by people without disabilities, the ‘dominant’ group, in ways that empower Special Olympics athlete leaders and ensure they have meaningful roles and opportunities to lead.
While the trip was incredibly educational and eye opening, we were also able to have some fun outside of our workshops. After our meeting on Tuesday, we all went to a Washington Nationals baseball game. It was a lot of fun. They won that day. After our Wednesday meetings, we all had a nice dinner up on the rooftop of our hotel.
After the Thursday meetings, some of us went us for dinner. After dinner, we met up with the group and went to the National Mall. We were able to see the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, the White House, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. It was a lot of fun to see since I had never been to Washington D.C.
On Friday, we were able to see Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s office when we went to the Special Olympics headquarters for meetings. Seeing the office of Special Olympics’ founder, who was a person truly dedicated to seeing athletes succeed in leadership roles, was the perfect way to end a trip on Unified Leadership.