Today, host Lori Boll speaks with the Chief Global Education Officer for the Special Olympics, responsible for global education and youth leadership. Jacqueline Jodl, PhD.  Lori and Jackie discuss the history of the Special Olympics, the evidence that backs up these programs that lessens bullying and bias, and how we, in our international schools, can get more involved. With a program like Unified Sports, we can create inclusive opportunities. 

Resources Mentioned in Today’s Podcast:


Jacqueline Jodl, PhD, is the Chief Global Education Officer for the Special Olympics,  responsible for global education and youth leadership. Previously, Dr. Jodl was an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Executive Director at the Aspen Institute leading the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Dr. Jodl’s life is dedicated to helping organizations like Special Olympics that help children and young people who advocate for a more inclusive world where differences are celebrated, not feared.


Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour podcast with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hello everyone, today I speak with Dr.Jacqueline Jodl who is Chief Global Education officer at The Special Olympics and she’s responsible for global education and youth leadership. Previously, Dr.Jodl was an associate professor at the University of Virginia, School of Education, and an executive director at the Aspen institute, leading the national commission on social, emotional, and academic development. Dr.Jodl’s life is dedicated to helping ogranisations like Special Olympics that help children and young people who advocate for a more inclusive world where differences are celebrated and not feared, kind of like SENIA. So today we talk about this amazing organisation, Special Olympics, the evidence behind it, and how to get more involved. I know you’ll be excited to start a unified sports programme in your school and our call to action for you is to get involved somehow. It just takes one person to start something. So, I’ll stop talking so you can hear from Jacqueline herself. So now, on to the show. 

Hi Jacqui, and welcome to the podcast! 

Jacqueline: Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure to be here. 

Lori: Well, we are delighted. A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Chris Nikic on our podcast – as a quick reminder for our audience, Chris is the first individual with Down Syndrome to complete a full Iron Man. And as we were chatting, his father reminded us that Chris was an athlete with the Special Olympics, which is amazing.

Jacqueline: Absolutely! Arguably our most famous athlete. 

Lori: I myself had the opportunity to go to the Special Olympics when it was in Shanghai, China, back in the early 2000’s, and it was truly one of my favourite experiences ever to see the athletes there all cheering each other on to the spirit of the games. It was just… it’s something I’ll never forget. So, what does… can you help us understand what the Special Olympics do? Is it a sports organisation only or do you do more? 

Jacqueline: Well, that’s absolutely the most foundational question – you know, what is Special Olympics? So we are known for being a sports organisation and as you described, our global events, the global games, are just transformative events not only for our athletes but for spectators who come to watch their loved ones or friends, or family members participate in the athletics competitions. And it  can be absolutely in organising events in one’s life, as you see in those individuals with disabilities come together and compete and learn about differences and learn about how to bridge those differences. So that’s really our flagship, our flagship event, is the games. But Special Olympics really has taken the platform of sports and become so much more. So we really operate in 3 different categories beyond sports – the first one is health. As those who work with disabilities, often the health needs are a little bit more challenging than those without, so we understand that we deliver health programming around the world, not only programming that attempts to focus on early identification but also just programming that addresses basic things like hearing and eyesight, as well as just… basic fitness because often, those with intellectual disabilities don’t get the type of exercise that they probably, they probably, that many others do. 

The second area that we operate in is what we’ll call the education or schools work, and we are in about 30 countries around the world I in schools and we deliver Unified School. We call it Unified Sports Programming along with Unified Schools within a Unified Schools model and that really is an incredible opportunity to bring people with and without intellectual disabilities, that’s the model, which is key because we know is that one of the most important barriers to wellbeing among those with intellectual disabilities is being included in ways that overcome the bias of those without intellectual disabilities. So the only way to kind of build that bridge to, kind of, get through that bias, is to bring together those with and without intellectual disabilities and just have them learn from one another. So that’s really the core of the sports, I mean, the education programme.

And then the final area that we operate in is, we call, Leadership. And this includes both youth leadership where we work both in and out of schools, building youth voice to advocate for more inclusive world, and then we also work in a range of leadership contexts with adults including coaches, including those without intellectual disabilities… again, this model bringing those with and without intellectual disabilities together to build leadership skills in communities. 

So as you can see, Special Olympics does a lot of things. 190 countries around the world and it’s a big operation and, if I was sitting next to the chairman, Dr. Timothy Shriver, he would, what he would say is, we are the largest grassroots community organization around the world. 

Lori: So, we spoke with, well, first of all, amazing. And then we spoke with Best Buddies a few, probably about a year ago, and they were also started by the Shriver family. 

Jacqueline: Yes, yes! So Special Olympics has this wonderful history of being founded by the Shriver family, so Eunice Shriver, for our listeners, was JFK’s, President John F. Kennedy’s sister, she had a sister, they had a sister who had intellectual disabilities and in those days, there were just tremendous bias. And so the way that her sister was treated, um, just caused her to really rethink her life, her own life and how she could contribute to the inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities. So in 1962, I think it was, someone reached out to her and expressed… “we need to have some type of a summer events or something for these children with intellectual disabilities” and that started her thinking and before you knew it, in 1968, something that started out in her backyard in her pool, you know, there are some famous pictures of her on the internet with children with intellectual disabilities in her backyard pool. But in 1968, was the first Special Olympics games and they were in Chicago at Soldier Field, so that was started by Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, and her son, Dr.Tim Shriver took over as chairman, probably about 20 years ago. He was initially CEO and became chairman several years ago so he was very involved in the Special Olympics and they’re a key external face of the organization and also really drives the education of side of our work because he’s a global education expert, you know, being trained initially as a teacher and later to go on to do Doctoral work in Education.

The other organisation you mentioned, Best Buddies, was founded by his brother and it is also just a real transformative organisation bringing together those with and without intellectual disabilities, you know, as… the notion of Best Buddies. One of the most important things we can do to create young people and adults who are health, and im talking about physical and emotional health, is to make sure that we foster good relationships because we’re social beings and everyone needs a healthy relationships in their lives. 

Lori: That is certainly true. I want to circle back with you about the Unified Sports Programme that you mentioned earlier – so as our listeners know, I have a 22 year old son with profound autism and when I was living overseas, I would see my friends on social media from the States who also had children with intellectual disabilities and they were sharing about something called, this magical something called “Unified Sports” and their kids were on the basketball field, or the basketball courts playing with other children and it was a team of individuals with special needs and those without. They were playing soccer, they were playing all these sports together, and it just looked truly, as I said before, magical. And I always found that I was quite jealous because I was overseas and we didn’t have that opportunity. So I wondered if I could somehow make it possible our own international schools… So can you just tell us more about….

Jacqueline: Yes, certainly. So Unified Sports is one of, it’s one of our most important programmes because what we know is that when we bring together young people in athletic environments, all of a sudden, the differences melt away. And what happens is the focus is on the game. The focus is on the win, the focus is on the experience of competition or in the case of Special Olympics, it’s not about performing better than one another, it’s just performing at your very best. That’s really the focus of competition at the Special Olympics. So we’re actually in communities around the world where we deliver Unified Sports Programming. We also deliver Unified Sports Programming in 100,000 schools around the world and it is absolutely our most important programme because what it does is it creates these inclusive mindsets and inclusive behaviours amongst young people as they experience sports together and then learn that you can have friends that you think may have more differences than similarities, but once you start to compete and share your love of sports and competition, those differences disappear. And commonalities emerge. 

Lori: Yeah, I love it. I was wondering, so you’re in all these countries, which is amazing. And if our listeners are thinking, I’d love to do this. What can they do? 

Jacqueline: Yes. Absolutely. So we have an incredible footprint around the world. So we have Special Olympic regions, we have 7 regions around the world. And within each of those regions, we have programmes, national programmes, across these 190 countries. It’s very likely that your listeners are in a country that has a Special Olympics programme. And all the programmes are listed on our website just to Google Special Olympics and your country and it’ll be easy to track down whether or not your country has a programme. Chances are, they do. And if not, they’re absolutely opportunities to become a new programme in a new country and go through the process to become that. But chances are, you’re in a country that has a Special Olympics programme and just to reach out to them, I think, every 20 minutes, before COVID, one of the metrics that came up was there was a special olympics programme or event happening around the world. So it’s not only Unified Sports Programmes that happen around the world but there’s a range – as I mentioned, there’s health programmes going on, as well as leadership programming that’s going on. And other types of programming to really support the families and siblings and the caregivers so there’s a whole portfolio of programming that we offer across the world. 

Lori: That’s great! And so if people wanted to say, get more involved in coaching or all of the different opportunities you mentioned, they just hop on Google on their country…

Jacqueline: They can hop on Google and once you start to get to your local programme, there are opportunities to become a coach and we have a very extensive coach training both in person and a lot of it is increasingly online and our coaching training is just superb because it really starts to move beyond just the competence of the sports, which, of course, is important, whether you’re teaching basketball or whether you’re coaching soccer or football, absolutely to understand how to teach and coach that sport. But also to work with diverse athletic population so you have athletes that are participants some with intellectual disability, some without, at a range of different abilities levels. We have recreational levels and then we have some very competitive teams. And you know, Chris, as you mentioned, is an example of someone who competes at the highest levels globally. And so we have a wide, wide range of abilities and our coaching staff reflects that. 

There’s also opportunities to volunteer at the local level and our volunteer force around the world is so essential – Special Olympics would not exist, would not be able to deliver the extent of its programming without our volunteer force. And many of our volunteers are family members of those with intellectual disabilities who really understand what, the daily challenges, and also really understand the daily opportunities and joy that you can have when you start to open up your hearts and minds to the idea that everyone has something to give in this world. 

Lori: Yes. I was curious… I know the majority of our listeners are all about inclusion – in fact, SENIA’s 20th year and our theme for the year is inclusion revolution. Tell me about the studies or the evidence based practices that you have to know that inclusion is what’s right. 

Jacqueline: Yes – that’s right. So we have a whole evidence based studies that go back many years and, let me give you some of those highlights. Many of those studies have been fielded in the US because in the US, we have Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools in nearly 10,000 schools. And that’s really where our footprint started, which is in the US, and that’s of course why the research really stems from there. But we also expanded some of our research work in the last couple of years and did a really critical study for global sites and what we found is that you really start to see dramatic drops in bullying in schools. You know, 9 out of 10 of young people believe that bullying is a really pervasive problem so if you can start to really address those types of issues, it can really change both the school experience for students. Or if they’re outside of schools, because most children globally are not in integrated settings – they’re mostly in segregated settings, but if you can start to reduce the bullying and build tolerance and accept differences and really empathy for those with intellectual disabilities, you can really change the lives of those with ID. and that’s exactly what you’d find with our programming, and in these studies across these 4 countries, you saw reduced bullying reported by administrators so we’re not just talking about low levels. 94% of administrators reported that they saw decreased and reduced bullying and exclusion in school environments. 

The other thing is that, as I talked about, you really need to address stereotypes amongst those without ID for those with ID. And what you saw also in this study is that it really overturns those negative stereotypes and attitudes about disability. And you saw 9 out of 10 students without ID in some of these countries reporting that their behaviour changed. Now think about that. You know, you’re not just talking about changes in attitudes, you’re talking about these changes in attitudes translating to changes in behaviour for those with ID, and any mother, parent, caregiver of someone with IDD, that’s… it just warms your heart because that’s really what we want as parents for our children, whether our children have ID or they don’t have ID. We want them to be accepted and embraced by others. 

The other area we saw improvements based on the Special Olympics is the life skills. And this is the ability to get along with others, the ability to resolve conflict in a way that’s constructive, and the ability to really support those with differences. So all of those social emotional skills that when you hear people talk about life skills or work force skills, we saw these dramatic increases in those skills among again, those students with ID and those students without ID. 

And the final piece is that we really saw changes in school climate, and you saw it in some of these countries, 4 out of 5 actual educators, teachers, were reporting that there was an improved sense of community and what we know in education research is that when you have a sense of community, which is students’ connections to schools, students’ sense of belonging in schools, that you have better learning environment for all students. So the research on Special Olympics is quite compelling and we’re continuing, there’s always more research to do and we’re continuing to do that research. 

Lori: Sure. Well, I really hope today is kind of the start of our conversation between the Special Olympics and all of our international schools. I think this lights a little spark for our listeners to maybe start something or volunteer or take part somehow in Special Olympics in their countries. So, thank you. 

Jacqueline: Absolutely. And I encourage everyone who has you know, who has children in your schools to reach out to local Special Olympics programmes and tell them that you want to be an Unified school, you want to be a Special Olympics Unified school and how do we make that happen? And we provide grants to all those countries to continue to expand the schools they reach. 

Lori: Yeah, I love that. And just, if I can make a shoutout to our listeners to reach out to your PE teachers as well because PE teachers at the schools, they’re involved so much in the athletics department and starting up these programmes together, could be really powerful for everyone, whether you have an intensive needs or a higher needs programme at your school or not, I believe that these international schools can start these programmes at their schools and they have the resources. And they can just do it. 

Jacqueline: Yeah, and again, just to reinforce, we have… we also have resources or programming for more intensive needs students as well as those who have a less intensive needs, and we have a range of programming and the local Special Olympics programmes would be able to help with that. And you know, often, it just takes a single person. It takes a volunteer in the community just to say “alright, I’m going to make this happen”. There are countless examples of that around the world in the history of the Olympics.

Lori: Well, it just takes one. I think that’s a great place to end for today. So, thank you so much! 

Jacqueline: Thank you so much! 

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.