Q&A: Special Olympics Senior Manager Meghan Hussey on the Importance of Inclusion and Youth Leadership

Making the world a more peaceful and just place — one that sees and values the abilities of all people — is no easy task. It requires leaders who understand the importance of inclusion and approach their work, no matter the field, with an inclusive mindset.

Since 2016, World Learning has been working to cultivate this mindset among emerging leaders through the Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD) Mongolia program. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, LEAD Mongolia is building the next generation of democratic champions through leadership training programs, civic education activities, and an international exchange. Working together, LEAD fellows carry out projects tackling issues such as poverty and unemployment, environment and urbanization, and transparency and anti-corruption.

Through it all, LEAD fellows draw on lessons learned through World Learning’s social inclusion training — the TAAP (Transforming Agency, Access, and Power) Initiative — to drive change in their communities in a way that includes and amplifies all voices. They have gone on to fight for a better education for children in Mongolia’s Kazakh minority population, host the country’s first televised debate held entirely in sign language, and expose how social stigmas have created a disproportionately high rate of unemployment for people with disabilities.

Meghan Hussey, Special Olympics Senior Manager for Global Youth Engagement

In September, the newest cohort of LEAD fellows came to the United States to learn about U.S. democracy, discover best practices for their advocacy work, and learn how other organizations approach inclusion. Special Olympics was one of those organizations. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics provides sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Though it is best known for its World Games, Special Olympics Senior Manager for Global Youth Engagement Meghan Hussey explained to the LEAD fellows that her organization also offers a variety of other youth and leadership development programs to create a more inclusive world.

This visit made an impression on many of the fellows, such as Battsetseg Goitiiz. Hailing from Uvurkhangai, a rural area of Mongolia, Goitiiz works closely with children with disabilities in her community and has seen the difference that participating in Special Olympics activities has made for them. “Many children did so good and some of them even won the gold, silver and bronze medals,” she said. “I feel very proud of them and their teachers. Children are becoming more independent and self-confident through participating in the Special Olympics programs and competitions.”

In the following interview, World Learning talks to Hussey about her role at the organization, why she enjoys meeting with groups like the LEAD Mongolia fellows, and how future leaders all over the world can get involved with Special Olympics.

Tell me about Special Olympics.

Special Olympics is a 50-year-old organization. Our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was inspired by her sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, and the social stigma and marginalization she experienced. Our founder had seen the power of sports to change lives, and believed that would be a very powerful path to changing minds and attitudes toward intellectual disabilities — by showing the abilities people have and giving them the opportunity to experience joy, develop their talents, and show that to their families, communities, and the world.

As we’ve grown, we’ve also developed a suite of youth programs focused on our Unified Champion Schools model. The first is Unified Sports, people with and without intellectual disabilities playing and training together as a team in sports or fitness opportunities. It uses sports as a platform to teach and promote inclusion and key social-emotional skills that all youth with and without disabilities need to succeed. It really breaks down attitude barriers both for the people that are playing but also those that watch them. So, for a teacher that sees youth with and without disabilities playing together, all of a sudden, those students don’t seem as different.

And then we complement that programming with our Inclusive Youth Leadership development because youth and people with intellectual disabilities should not be the recipients of someone else’s charity but, for this work to have its desired effect, it’s really critical they be the drivers of this programming. So we really push for youth to be the ones that are organizing, taking on different leadership roles within that programming.

The third component of it is the Whole School Engagement, which is often led by youth leaders with and without intellectual disabilities. So that might [involve] different awareness days or an End to the R-Word campaign in societies where that type of stigmatized language is a big problem. Those types of activities spread the message of inclusion to a wider audience than just the youth that are on the Unified Sports team or in the inclusive youth leadership club.

What’s your role as Global Youth Engagement manager?

I work with all of our six regions outside of North America to adapt the programming that we do with youth in schools to fit all of the different cultural and education system contexts around the world. Within that team, I’ve focused a lot on our international development partnerships and research — so, finding ways that we can partner or give our regional and national programs resources to create partnerships to drive sustainable change for inclusion in their community.

I grew up doing Special Olympics programming in Connecticut. My sister is a little bit younger than me and she has autism and intellectual disability and so she’s a Special Olympics athlete. I grew up doing Unified Sports, which is our inclusive sports program. My mother is also a local coordinator and head coach in my hometown. So it’s great now to be able to see all the different ways that Special Olympics is really a global movement. It’s not just in my small town; it’s in millions of small towns all over the world.

Why is it important for you to meet with groups like our LEAD Mongolia fellows?

We welcome chances to meet with groups like the LEAD Fellows. This is the first time we’ve met with them through World Learning, but we’ve met with other international exchange groups before and always welcome the chance to engage with young leaders who might be currently outside of our movement. The more people we can get thinking about inclusion and approaching leadership with an inclusive mindset, the better it will be for us in achieving our mission. We are always looking for opportunities to reach people with that message of inclusion, especially young leaders like the LEAD Mongolia fellows who are going to be going out and doing projects [in their communities].

There’s a lot of people around the world for whom intellectual disability is something they haven’t considered or thought about as a result of the fact that, in a lot of societies, people with intellectual disabilities are hidden. They’re not necessarily out in society. It’s important to get people thinking, “How am I disability-inclusive? How am I working to make whatever change that I’m doing in my community happen in an inclusive way?”

But also I was really excited the LEAD Mongolia fellows also met with our local program, Special Olympics Mongolia. It’s one thing for us at headquarters to give the big global picture — and I think that’s very exciting for people to know this is a global movement — but also where can they act locally? Who can they connect to? How do they work with other partners in their community to make inclusive change happen and where are those resources for them?

What was your takeaway from the conversation?

It was really heartening for me to see their reception to the information that we were giving, how excited people were about it, and the fact that so many of them were referencing that visit to Special Olympics Mongolia.

One of them, [Battsetseg Goitiiz], said that a boy from her community had been to the Special Olympics World Games and everyone was so proud of his accomplishment. She had seen the power of the programming that we’re able to do and the way that Special Olympics is able to, in a radical way, say that people with intellectual disabilities can and should be leaders in a community. They’re not just recipients of someone else’s good will; they should be empowered to make change. Some of the LEAD Mongolia fellows really understand that — it resonated very well with them — so I was very excited when I knew that the connection had been made on a local level.

By doing an exchange like this, [the LEAD fellows have] gotten so many leadership skills they can put into practice in a really meaningful way when they go home — in whatever they’re doing. We not only are looking for people to help us grow what we do at Special Olympics, but we also want people to go into whatever work they’re doing with an inclusive mindset. If they’re doing a project that’s focused on employment, are they thinking about how to make that project inclusive? That’s the type of leader that we look to develop as well.

Are there any specific inclusive practices that you are hoping the LEAD fellows will incorporate into their work back home?

Yeah. Whatever they’re doing, I hope they’re going out and asking those questions and seeing different ways they can lead with other people and [look for leadership potential in] people that sometimes society writes off as not being capable of being leaders. A lot of people say, it’s kind of cliché, but I think it’s very true: “Great leaders create other leaders.” So I’m really hoping that the LEAD Mongolia fellows will reconsider some of their conceptions about who can be a leader, reach out to other groups like Special Olympics, and seek out those who may not have been considered for leadership roles.

How does inclusive leadership advance your mission?

Special Olympics is not just a movement for people with intellectual disabilities; it’s a movement from people with intellectual disabilities as well. Key in that is making sure that we’re developing leadership skills in our athletes that have intellectual disabilities but then also equipping people without intellectual disabilities — so their peers, other youth leaders, but adults as well — with skills to lead in a way that is inclusive and takes into account everybody’s different abilities.

When we talk about our inclusive sports programming, we talk about meaningful involvement, and that’s something that very much translates to the leadership realm as well: finding ways to teach people how you can work together to make sure that all of the skills people bring to the table, and their different points of view, are valued. Together, working in an inclusive way, you can make a school or community a more inclusive place.

You learn a lot of leadership skills in sports activities and that’s why I think some of the quickest ways to breaking those attitude barriers are on the sports field. Through Unified Sports activities, you learn teamwork, cooperation, communicating across differences, all of those skills, and then translating those skills into leadership development so that they can have impact off of the sports field as well. That’s very key for us.

I heard you discussed the Youth Innovation Grants with the LEAD fellows. Can you explain a little bit about those grants and who is eligible for them?

Youth Innovation Grants is a great project. These are small grants of up to $2,000 U.S. dollars for youth between 15 and 25 all over the world — we have them in 80 countries right now. They are usually done in unified pairs, so one youth leader with an intellectual disability and one without intellectual disability, and a mentor from their local or national Special Olympics program. They come up with an idea for a project they want to do in a community or in their school, something that either promotes Special Olympics programming or drives inclusion in some way.

I was really excited during the presentation to be able to share one of the [projects] that’s happening in Mongolia. We’ve had a couple in Mongolia, but one was a Unified Basketball Club: Two youth leaders formed unified basketball teams around Ulaanbaatar and then brought them together for a big tournament. To see all of that being driven by youth leaders is really exciting.

So these are opportunities to give youth leaders tangible resources and guidance to go out and make their ideas a reality. We do give preference to unified pairs, and we always ask for sign-off and a designated mentor from the Special Olympics accredited program in their area because we want to make sure that there’s enough support for youth as they’re going out and doing these projects. The applications come out two times a year — usually in the spring and the fall.

How can our alumni — whether the LEAD fellows or alumni of our high school leadership programs — get involved with Special Olympics?

First, look up the Special Olympics program in your area or country and get in touch with them. That is going to be your best way to find out what opportunities are available in your local community. Our website has an area where you can get the contact information of different country offices and, in some cases, sub-regional or more local programs. They’ll know the local schedules and have a more direct touchpoint of how [people] can get involved.

Generally what kind of activities might they be able to get involved with?

It depends on the area, age group, and the interest of the student. For youth that really want to get involved, [there are ] things like Innovation Grant projects or, if their high school doesn’t yet have a Special Olympics Unified Sports or Inclusive Youth Leadership program, we’ve had youth get together with teachers and be the ones to bring Special Olympics to their school. That’s always something that we encourage.

We also have opportunities to volunteer with different Special Olympics events. University students or medical students might want to get involved with our health-focused programming. Our athlete leadership programs are sometimes looking for mentors. Or [there’s also] event volunteering for our sports programming.

It can be slow, but then we also know how powerful young people can be in different societies. We have a long-term vision — it’s not just about instant change; you have to think about how we move the world to becoming a more inclusive place.

I will say, in the short term, we’ve been able to see just from youth — who are making what might seem like small projects — how much they’re able to change schools and areas. In India, for example, a lot of growth in the depth of engagement has been coming from young people who started Special Olympics in their school going and talking to other schools. That’s where change happens as well. It’s giving youth agency and power to go out and make change at the grassroots level. And then that change at the grassroots level in the aggregate leads to bigger outcomes.



World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.