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Learning Library Blog It's not about helping the marginalized, but learning from them
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It's not about helping the marginalized, but learning from them

By Julie Randles
January 1, 2017
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Of all the titles Timothy P. Shriver holds – social leader, educator, author, film producer, entrepreneur – one gig always stands out, no matter the audience.

Shriver has been the chairman of Special Olympics since 1996, working with more than 5 million Special Olympics athletes in nearly 170 countries to promote health, education and a more unified world through the joy of sports. He’s the man responsible for the organization’s most ambitious growth agenda ever, and for taking Special Olympics to developing or war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq.

He wants people to understand that people with intellectual disabilities should not be excluded or treated differently from their peers without disabilities, which is why, under Shriver’s leadership, Special Olympics has developed programs in athlete leadership, cross-cultural research, health, education and family support. Special Olympics Healthy Athletes has become the world’s largest public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities, and Special Olympics Unified Schools is a powerful new program promoting school-based social inclusion and unified leadership, bringing together youth with and without intellectual disabilities.

But his is also the name behind projects you’d never suspect. Shriver co-produced DreamWorks Studios’ 1997 release “Amistad” and Disney Studios’ 2000 release, “The Loretta Claiborne Story.” He is also the executive director of “The Ringer,” a Farrelly Brothers’ film, and “Front of the Class,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie.

And no matter how busy his day, he remains a leading educator on the social and emotional factors in learning. He co-founded and currently chairs the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (casel), the leading school reform organization in the field of social and emotional learning. And the New Haven Public Schools’ Social Development Project, now considered the leading school-based effort to prevent destructive behaviors in the United States? Yep, he created it.

Shriver earned his undergraduate degree from Yale University, a master’s degree from Catholic University and a doctorate in education from the University of Connecticut.
In 2014, Shriver wrote a book, Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most, where he shares the life-changing impact of people with intellectual disabilities and their capacity to inspire others and to find what matters most.

Born in Boston, Shriver today lives in Washington, d.c., with his wife, Linda, and their five children.

You wrote a book titled Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most. What matters most to you? 

What matters most to me is to be unafraid of the judgment of others. Thus, to live what I consider to be my truest and best self. 

You’ve had roles as an educator, a film producer and an entrepreneur. What lessons have you learned from your life’s path?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that to crack yourself open requires paying attention to people on the margins, people who have been excluded. I’ve learned my biggest life lesson from teenagers who are at risk of dropping out of school, people with intellectual disabilities who have no friends, from parents who feel isolated and rejected by their families. 

The big lesson I’ve learned from these people is to be unafraid. In the end, no one’s judgment about you can or should determine who you are. To discover the goodness in you almost requires that you move to the margins – move beyond the popular, the convenient, the easy, the predictable. You will find your most fulfilling experiences in some of the least likely places.

What progress have you seen in the public’s perception of individuals with mental and physical disabilities since your mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded Special Olympics in 1968?

I think there has been a lot of progress. Institutions have closed, schools have become much more inclusive, people have begun to get jobs, most people with intellectual disabilities are living with their families and in communities. In many ways, many of the physical barriers to inclusion and dignity have been eliminated. But like every civil rights and human rights movement, the attitudinal barriers are much more stubborn.

The challenge we have today is not to just create physical proximity in schools or in shopping malls, but to create emotional and social connection and respect – to ensure that people with intellectual differences are seen for their gifts and not just for their challenges. We have a new social revolution now getting started. It’s not about helping those who are in the margins but learning from them. It isn’t about helping people with intellectual disabilities (id) but what people with id have to teach the rest of our culture. At a time when we have made great progress, we have the greatest opportunity ever, which is in the moment when the country and the world are looking for teachers who can show us how to overcome barriers and differences. Those teachers are people with intellectual disabilities. They have that lesson to teach, and that is the next phase of this social revolution.

We need to recognize them as empowered teachers for our culture. Now, it’s not about welcoming people with id into schools – it’s about unlocking their potential to teach in schools. This is a HUGE change. It’s not about services for them; it’s about lessons from them. It’s not about helping them. It’s about inviting their experience, their wisdom, their humor, their gifts and their trust into the culture of the school. That becomes an enormous opportunity to shift the cultures of schools, which are now tense, anxiety-ridden and divisive, and create a much more welcoming and inspiring school culture by following the most vulnerable kids in the school.

When you spoke with the Learning First Alliance Board of Directors last year, you shared some very personal stories about your family’s history and work with Special Olympics. What do you most want the broader community to understand about your family’s Special Olympics story?
The great thing to understand is, where the recognizable figures [in our family] have political power and fame, the actual engine of compassion and justice and equality and service was the least-known member of our family, and that was Rosemary.

I think without Rosemary, none of the political or social achievements that my parents’ generation are known for would have taken place. That, I believe, is an important story, not just for people in politics, but for people looking at role models and what matters. You overlook the person who maybe doesn’t speak well or the person who doesn’t go to the best college. Frequently, right under our noses are the people who actually have the secrets to a more hopeful and peaceful future.

Teachers and technology are sometimes viewed in the false dichotomy of “either or.” Can you share examples of how Special Olympics coaches have used data and technology to support athletes? 

Here’s what we have learned from technology so far: First of all, we have learned that the data systems around the world have been able to show us just how bad the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities is. Social media and the super-empowered media technologies have revealed to us the treatment of people in institutions everywhere from Mexico to South Africa to New York to Iowa. So technology has opened our eyes to the experience of people with id around the world.

Secondly, it’s revealed to us that we can tell the stories – the heroic stories – of so many people with id and their families in countries around the world through our movement. Without technology, we wouldn’t know we have 5.3 million athletes and unified partners, 108,000 competitions, hundreds of thousands of health screenings for our athletes, etc. Technology has allowed us to capture the stories of our athletes in South Africa; in Phoenix, Arizona; in Birmingham, England; and in nearly 170 countries around the world – athletes who are changing their culture and telling stories of what is happening in their communities. We are elevating voices that would have been hidden. 

What we have not yet been able to do is create the applications and the environment where people can come into our movement and join it and participate in it and learn from it as powerfully as we would like. So we need to create new web-enabled tools that will promote fitness, community, health and access to health, learning from people, and lessons of inclusion for a new generation of people with id. Technology has helped, but we are not where we need to be yet. Microsoft and other partners are helping us get there.

How have you seen assistive technologies evolve over recent years, and how are they changing the lives of young and old?

That is not a field that I know particularly well, but when I see people who have speech issues who use assisted speech devices, I see people like Robert (Bob) Williams, a senior official in the Clinton administration and d.c. government who is able to bring his voice to bear. I see Troy Daniels, one of the iconic leaders of our movement, who gave a speech on the history of our movement using an assistive speech device. 

Some of these devices and technologies have unlocked the voices of people who would have otherwise been hidden. Assistive devices certainly made it possible for guys like our athlete and employee Ben Collins to read, something that otherwise would have been impossible. The possibilities are enormous for people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, speech impairments and mobility impairments to help them with tasks like cooking, schedules, timing, how to make sure that you don’t leave the stove on, how to make sure you get to the bus on time. People are able to live independently because these types of technologies can be programmed to assist people who have challenges managing multiple tasks. 

ISTE has a very active professional learning network called the Inclusive Learning Network. How can that group and other members of the ISTE community best engage with Special Olympics?

I think they should argue with us for a new era of Title IX awareness and awakening. A new era where we begin to demand that schools across this country, in addition to having boys’ teams and girls’ teams, have Special Olympics Unified Sports teams in every school in America.

When that happens, we will have the means to raise a generation that respects and demands inclusion and assumes inclusion to be the norm.

You spent 15 years in the education field as a teacher and running education programs. You also serve on the board of The Future Project, an organization that helps youth discover their potential and build skills to change their lives. In your opinion, what role does technology play in youth discovering their potential, inspiring hope and building futures of promise?

The main thing is that technology has made information available to kids of any age. When I was a kid, if you wanted to learn about Greece, Rome, etc., you had to go to the school library or the community library. If you wanted to learn about the periodic table of elements, you had to go to school. 

Technology is shifting the entire role of the school, in my view, which goes back to the printing press. The printing press made knowledge into something that could be printed and distributed. Schools became the last stop in that distribution chain where you would get the books and learn the knowledge. Today, that’s gone; no longer necessary. Schools have to change fundamentally, from content to connection and compassion and inspiration. That’s why our athletes are so important, because they are carriers, they are metaphors, they are wise people in the business of inspiration.

Historically, individualized education plans, or IEPs, have been reserved for selected groups of students. Now there is an emerging belief that every student should have a highly personalized learning program. What’s your perspective, and what have you learned from your background in creating personalized experiences?

Well, it’s true. We are a great example that was started based on providing something to kids with special needs. It’s become bigger and will become a part of culture.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife, have committed something like $30 billion to supporting personalized education in the future. Where did this start? It started in special ed when we realized that every kid is different. Every kid had unique gifts and needed a customized plan. That is wisdom and insight that comes from the special-needs world.

This is the future of education. A standard curriculum that’s forced on every child will not be the future. This concept of individualized education plans will grow exponentially in the next 20 or 30 years.

What is your perception of education funding levels for special needs students at the state and district levels? What more needs to be done?

I think the additional resources that kids with special needs require will always seem like an expense. But, actually, they are an investment. They are an investment in teaching quality, in teaching the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence that all human beings are created equal, in teaching children the power and value of diversity, the importance of inclusion and openness, the experience of compassion and service.

If we look at it that way, as investments we need to make in supporting children with special needs in schools, this would seem like a very small investment indeed. That will require that we shift our lens from perceiving them to be cost centers to seeing them as valuable assets. If we see them as big assets for schools, we would get closer to understanding their importance in the overall structure of funding their education appropriately.

Julie P. Randles is the editor of entrsekt.