I envision an inclusive world where individuals of all abilities have equal opportunities to thrive, lead and succeed. Doesn’t everyone?
As a young girl – growing up with a twin brother with an Autism Spectrum Disorder – I assumed that everyone shared my vision. As my brother Jacob and I grew older—it became more and more clear that the world is far from an inclusive place. Jacob—and millions of youth with disabilities throughout the world—struggle daily with marginalization, exclusion, and segregation within their schools and communities.
There are over 300 million youth with disabilities worldwide. According to UNICEF, “Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups of children, experiencing widespread violations of their rights. Too often, children with disabilities are denied and judged by what they lack rather than what they have. Their exclusion and invisibility serves to render them uniquely vulnerable, denying them respect for their dignity, their individuality, even their right to life itself”.
I remember one moment in 7thgrade, I remember my brother getting into the car after school, sobbing, saying “mom I have no friends, why don’t I have any friends”. That was the moment when I decided I wanted to do something about this. My original goal was to find Jacob a friend. I began by immersing myself in the disability world, connecting with youth, parents, and providers, and learning all I could.
Despite the numerous legal mandates for equal access and opportunity for individuals with disabilities, I found that schools and communities across the country fall short. Kids lives revolve around their schools. Kids meet and interact in school courses, sports, and clubs. Kids with disabilities, however, are often isolated from other students and unable to join and be successful in school courses and extracurricular programs. Many fall victim to bullying, and many fight the stereotype that they are unable to contribute to society. In most schools, the special education and general education programs run as two separate schools. Students with disabilities lack access to strong academic programs, best practices, and assistive technology. Students with and without disabilities lack access to each other – creating school climates lacking in respect, acceptance, and friendship.
To first address this lack of inclusion, I worked closely with Special Olympics to start new inclusive sports programs within my school district. After a year of meetings and planning, my district middle schools still did not get any inclusive sports off the ground.
I moved on to high school and tried again. I was approved to launch a new Unified Kayak Club, as well as a Unified Club – or what I called a Score A Friend Club – a club to connect students and build inclusion within the school. Both clubs were overwhelmingly welcomed and supported by students, families, and staff. I received grant funding and support from Special Olympics and the National Sports Center for the Disabled. But the school had a different vision. They saw both clubs as belonging to the special education program. Both clubs were to serve students with disabilities only - and few students without disabilities were allowed to participate. The school preferred segregation – putting their liability concerns above student achievement.
I was shocked and disappointed – along with many club supporters – and had no choice but to abandon the club plans at the school. I felt that I had failed my brother, as well as many more, and began to question my vision. As the year progressed, Jacob’s segregation and isolation took an even bigger toll. His skills greatly regressed, and he completely stopped talking.
My newfound anger and frustration began to fuel me. My passion for inclusion grew, and my commitment to perseverance and system change resulted in Jacob and I moving to a new school that was supportive of inclusion. It also resulted in me designing a better and stronger Score A Friend Club Program that would give other youth leaders a much easier and streamlined path toward inclusion in many schools. I launched a summer Score A Friend Club at my local recreation center to train new youth leaders. I launched a club at our new school, along with new inclusive courses and sports programs—where Jacob made fast gains and began talking non-stop again. Later that year, the Score A Friend Club at Louisiana State University was nominated as top new club on their campus.
It was then that Score A Friend, Incorporated was born – a non-profit organization with the mission to create opportunities for lifelong friendships by bringing people of all abilities together in schools and communities. We built a board of directors, a website, and online program materials to support programs across the country. We are now working with schools and individuals across the country to launch new Score A Friend programs this year.
Every day, I continue to envision an inclusive world where individuals of all abilities have equal opportunities to thrive, lead, and succeed. It is the responsibility of our generation to bring my brother and millions more out of segregated systems and into their communities as fully included, contributing members of society – each making our world a much better place.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned through founding Score A Friend is that anyone—of any age, gender, ethnicity, or ability—can make a difference in the world. You can sit next to someone sitting alone at lunch. You can ask someone to coffee. You can reach out your hand and introduce yourself to someone and truly allow others to be themselves around you. These small inclusive acts have the power to change lives. I started out at age 13, simply wanting to help my brother find a friend and it has sparked into a nationwide movement, as well as a lifelong mission.
Please join me in making the world a more inclusive place where everyone has the opportunity to score a friend.
Interested in getting involved? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org learn how you can make the world a more inclusive place.
Check out tomorrow’s blog to learn where Sarah and Jacob are now.