We sat down for a Q&A session with Ally Chapman, a special education teacher at East Middle School, who is leading the charge on bringing Unified programming to her school. Unified programs combine students with and without disabilities to break through barriers and create more inclusive cultures. Chapman reflected on her involvement with Special Olympics Minnesota and explained how inclusion has made a positive impact on her personally and professionally.
Q: How have you seen the inclusion change your school community?
A: Students in special education are getting invited to sit at different lunch tables. There’s more interaction in the hallways between students with and without intellectual disabilities. One student who has been involved in our Unified club wants to continue his education and become a special education teacher. I’ve seen so many improvements, and I only expect things to continue.
I’ve also seen many general education teachers extend their reach to our students in special education. Teachers are so busy. We don’t always have the time to focus on things outside our classrooms, but many have been making the time to meet more students with intellectual disabilities and to get to know them better.
Q: What does the term “inclusion” mean to you?
A: Inclusion isn’t just about including students in special education because they have a disability. It’s about including everyone. People who are similar to you and people who are different. On a basic human level, people are people, and we’re all in this together. We can connect with each other in so many different ways.
Q: What is the most challenging thing for you about this kind of work? And what makes it all worth it?
A: There’s a lot of extra planning and time that goes into facilitating Unified activities, but I’m hesitant to even call that a challenge because it’s so worth it. I don’t really think there are any challenges or downsides.
However, as a special education teacher, I often get hit with the comment, “Oh, you must have so much patience.” This can be frustrating, especially when we’re putting in all this work to break down barriers and change misconceptions of students with intellectual disabilities. Sometimes, there’s a lot of explaining that you don’t need to have pity on those who have intellectual disabilities. It can sometimes be challenging to figure out how to initially teach students to see their peers’ abilities instead of just their disabilities.
Q: What are some of your goals for inclusion?
A: Our main goal right now is to continue growing the number of students participating in our inclusive activities. We would love to see inclusion move beyond the lunch table and into students’ lives outside of schools. In the future, it would be great to see more clubs, community events, birthday parties, having the same energy we see from Unified. It’s a challenge but having more events in the community will make a big impact.
We’re also working to get more support from teachers and administration outside of the special education department. If we got all staff on board, I know the Unified movement would spread like wildfire.
Q: What advice would you give to another teacher who is looking to bring the Unified movement to their school or community?
A: Just do it! The whole experience has been nothing but positive for us in Shakopee. At first, we were a bit concerned about the financial piece of bringing a program like this to our school. But if you don’t think you have the money, it’s fine. There’s always the option to reach out to Special Olympics Minnesota for support.
As far is implementing Unified goes, I would say it’s important to go deeper, not wider at the start. Don’t worry about getting every student involved right off the bat. Just be intentional about the activities you plan and focus on keeping students engaged.
Getting involved with Unified programming adds excitement—it adds some spice to the school year. And it’s so easy! There’s no reason to be intimidated or scared, thinking it will bring an extra workload. The support system from Special Olympics Minnesota is so amazing, and they really make it as simple as it could possibly be.
Q: If there was one thing you would like everyone in the world to know about Special Olympics Minnesota, what would you tell them?
A: If you don’t know much about Special Olympics, get to know it! I think there’s a way for everyone to get involved on some level. There’s a place for everyone in this organization. It’s such a positive program, and it does nothing but build schools, communities and people up.
Basically, I would just tell people to get informed. Everyone should know the resources that are available from Special Olympics and take advantage of them. There’s so much to learn.