Even Champions Need Champions: Special Olympics New York CEO Testimony Highlights Opportunities for Inclusion Within New York City Schools

New York City, NY – Special Olympics New York President & CEO Stacey Hengsterman today highlighted a need for greater inclusion of students with disabilities in New York City schools, submitting testimony for a preliminary budget hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Education.

The testimony can be read in full, here.

Approximately 22,000 students had access to Special Olympics programming during school in 2021. Hensgterman says the country’s largest school district enrolls more than 1 million students and that it can do better by working more closely with her organization.

“… 2% of the students this committee aims to serve had access to Special Olympics programming in school last year,” Hengsterman’s testimony states. “Yet 20% of DOE students have a disability, and for the most part, the other 80% never even see a student with a disability in the hallway, let alone interact with them. It’s not even close to being enough.

“The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Special Olympics New York offers programs for students of all ages. We offer training for educators and coaches. We provide equipment and uniforms. All with zero start-up costs to impact school budgets.

“One of our most successful models is the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program, which my son and nearly 10,000 students currently participate in at more than 250 high schools statewide. In a Unified Champion School, students with and without ID compete as teammates against other schools in their section, just like any Varsity or Junior Varsity team. These students not only enjoy the physical, mental and social benefits of being on a school sports team; they lead inclusive activities that bring the entire student body together. The culture in a Special Olympics Unified Champion School is what all schools should strive for: one where every student is welcome, empowered and included.

“While we are seeing the Unified movement grow quickly upstate, it has been a struggle to partner with schools in the city. In fact, of the more than 250 Unified Champion Schools we work with statewide, just 12 of them are within the NYC DOE.

“Equally as important as comprehensive Unified Champion Schools programming, which is the most inclusive and engaging for students both with and without intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics New York offers training and coaching for school staff interested in providing Unified Physical Education classes, health and wellness programs, youth leadership and more. We have made some inroads at this less-immersive level over the years, with approximately 140 NYC DOE schools currently involved in some way. However, this is still a small fraction: slightly more than 7%.

“I know this committee will agree that the country’s largest and most diverse school system – and its surrounding communities – should be doing much, much better. With your help, it can.

“There are tens of thousands of people with disabilities in New York City who need Special Olympics and don’t know it yet. So many … with a champion sleeping inside of them, waiting to be awakened.

“Special Olympics can do that. I see it happen every day. But even champions need champions, and they need you.”

Special Olympics New York recently launched a new Strategic Plan, the first under Hengsterman’s leadership. A primary focus of the plan is to expand programming in New York City, where the need is most urgent. Learn more about the plan here.


About Special Olympics New York

Special Olympics New York is the largest state chapter in the country, serving more than 31,000 athletes across New York with year-round sports training, athletic competition, and health screenings. The organization also partners with about 250 schools statewide to offer Unified Sports, where students with and without disabilities compete as teammates. All Special Olympics New York programs are offered at no cost to athletes, their families or caregivers. The organization has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar.com, making it one of the most trusted charities in the business nationally. For additional information about Special Olympics New York, to learn more about getting involved, or to make a donation, visit www.specialolympicsNY.org.