Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools at SXSW EDU 2019 March 4-7, 2019, Austin, TX

Every March, people from all over the world gather in Austin, Texas for the famous South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals and events. Kicking off this incredible month is the SXSW EDU Conference and Festival, a huge gathering of stakeholders in the education community.

This March Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® had a significant presence in the ninth-annual SXSW EDU, culminating in various networking events, panels, sponsorships, and a unique exhibit at the Expo Center. Over thirty Special Olympics staff, volunteers, youth leaders, and distinguished guests were on hand to represent Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools to the thousands of SXSW EDU 2019 attendees.

The premier showcase of Unified Champion Schools at SXSW EDU 2019 was the unveiling of the incredible interactive exhibit called “Unlocking Inclusion.”

It is one thing to simply talk to people about inclusion, but it is something else entirely to show what inclusion looks like. The Unlocking Inclusion exhibit – which was open to SXSW EDU attendees all three Expo days – was an interactive journey through the history of Special Olympics and the Unified strategy. Featuring multimedia equipped lockers, attendees could walk through the “halls” of a school and learn about how Unified Champion Schools offers the solution for social inclusion in schools.

The Unlocking Inclusion Exhibit featured a "Unified Generation Tribune" newsletter, also available in Braille!

In the course of three days, thousands of attendees walked through Unlocking Inclusion, learned about the work of Unified Champion Schools, and even played some Unified Bocce with volunteers from Special Olympics Texas. Unlocking Inclusion was a memorable statement of the UCS team’s presence at SXSW, and set a precedent for making inclusion a priority at the conference.

The presence of SOUCS was not just limited to the Expo Hall, however; Special Olympics made an impressive showing in panels as well. Most prominent was Dr. Tim Shriver’s Featured Panel entitled “A Unified Perspective” which featured Texas special educator Erika Guerrero, Special Olympics athlete and Youth Ambassador Tahja Ilerant, former-NFL star and Special Olympics Global Ambassador Jamaal Charles, and Buffalo Bills player and Unified Champion School alumnus Eddie Yarbrough. Panelists spoke about their work in bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities in order to play together, learn together, and have the opportunity to build genuine friendships.

Genuine inclusion was also a main topic at the second of the panels led by representatives from Special Olympics called “Unified Generation: Youth & Social Inclusion.” In fact, this panel was voted for by SXSW EDU attendees on SXSW’s Panel Picker to be included in the final lineup of sessions! Led by Special Olympics senior directors Andrea Cahn and Soeren Palumbo, this panel featured two youth leaders who spoke beautifully and candidly on their experiences with inclusion. Ivalis Guajardo, a Special Olympics partner, and Mitch Bonar, a Special Olympics athlete, described the impact that the Unified strategy has had on their lives, educations, and even possible careers.

Finally, it would not be a true report of SXSW EDU 2019 without mentioning that Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools was a featured presenter of the Conference and Festival.

Months of hard work with the SXSW EDU team paid off with three high-profile networking events: the Early Bird Social, the “Teaching the Unified Generation” Meet-Up, and the presentation of the SXSW EDU Film Festival. These engaging and well-publicized opportunities gave the UCS team the chance to talk to as many attendees as possible and continue the conversation on social inclusion in schools.

Whether it was a preview of Unlocking Inclusion at the Early Bird Social...

...inspired remarks by Rhode Island Special Educator Jen Paolantonio at the Meet-Up...

...or the support of UCS team members at various Film Screenings...

...SXSW EDU attendees were given a true glimpse into the work that Special Olympics does in schools and communities year-round.

While this was the first year that Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools had a presence at SXSW EDU, it certainly wasn’t a timid one. From the onset, the Unified Champion Schools team went full-force into the planning and logistics of bringing the Unified experience to Austin, and came away with an extremely memorable week. Leaders and stakeholders in the education community were truly immersed in and educated on what schools can look like when led by the Unified Generation. The UCS team is so grateful to U.S. Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education for the continued support to create more inclusive schools across this great country.

Related Articles:

Christensen Institute: Who You Know Profiles on Jamaal Charles, Tim Shriver, and Tajha Ilerant

SXSW World: "What Do Special Olympics and the Magna Carta Have In Common?"

KVUE ABC: "SXSW EDU kicks off in Austin"

Getting Smart: "Six Tips, Three Whys: A SXSW EDU Reflection"

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