February 1, 2023

Symbolizing the Spirit of Inclusion: Special Olympics Brazil’s Story

Four adults with their arms around one another's shoulders.

Roberto, Carla, Renato, and Soraya celebrate their time at the Cariocas Inclusive Games.

As the second-largest state in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is dominated by its city of the same name. Rio is known for the staggering size and vibrancy of its urban sprawl. Home to samba music, beautiful beaches, and its annual Carnival—perhaps the most famous festival in the world, the city is also a study in contrasts. While there is an estimated tally of over 13 million people in the metropolitan region, a shared cultural identity of being “Cariocas”—a term meaning residents of Rio—makes the atmosphere of the city much more welcoming than the sheer numbers might suggest. Additionally, tucked among the picturesque hilly terrain and upscale tourist destinations overlooking the Atlantic coast are large numbers of favelas; these densely populated, economically poor, and often unstable communities house up to a quarter of Rio’s population.

Two students running between cones.

A Unified coach runs with two athletes during an activity at Maria Therezinha School.

The characteristics of a bustling city such as Rio influence both the attitudes and goals of its community members. Special Olympics Brazil understands the local customs well and uses them to good advantage in creating opportunities for inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in both social and educational settings. Special Olympics staff in Rio are known for organizing large-scale events that cater to the lively personalities of their fellow citizens. The staff strive to serve a variety of athletes and partners—from the city center to the mountainside favelas—so all can benefit from the message of inclusion.

Recently, 70 Unified Schools across the municipality participated in a festival of sports and inclusive activities for Special Olympics athletes and supporters of all ages and abilities. Held at the Olympic Park, the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Cariocas Inclusive Games was an all-day event that drew over 1,000 students and hundreds of teachers. Widely publicized, the games served as a platform for Special Olympics athletes to showcase their abilities in the midst of a supportive crowd in a public space. As the biggest event in the city since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event also boasted extensive media coverage and was attended by representatives from local government ministries.

What made the Inclusive Games particularly exciting and memorable for these 70 Unified Schools was the opportunity to compete and to celebrate inclusion in the highly regarded setting of the Olympic Park. For many of the attendees, it was their first time visiting the famed Olympic venue. Staff from special education schools, in particular, expressed exuberant joy that the event allowed their students to be highlighted in activities that extended beyond their schoolhouse doors and brought them a newfound measure of community respect.

Maria Therezinha Special Education School was one of the sites that benefited from this singular experience. The school serves over 150 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), as well as a handful of adults without disabilities who have little or no prior education. Many of the students reside in favelas and depend on the school to guide their educational and personal development, and the staff have consistently embraced this challenge. The positivity and grit of the school’s administrators and teachers are contagious, and their example is reflected in the behaviors and accomplishments of the students.

A group of students sitting on an indoor track.

Students from Maria Therezinha School are proud of medals they earned at the Cariocas Inclusive Games.

Representing one of the city’s leading Unified Schools, the students and teachers of Maria Therezinha Special Education School embody the “Carioca” spirit. The students were the stars of the Inclusive Games’ opening ceremony. They performed a skit and a dance, and one student shared her personal experience for a news package filmed by ESPN Brazil.

Soraya Rosa, a physical education instructor at Maria Therezinha, has been working with students with IDD since 1989. She choreographed the school’s performances at the Inclusive Games and says such events reveal the potential of her students to contribute to their community and break down people’s misconceptions about IDD. “When people see the abilities of our students, they will believe in their potential,” claims Soraya. She also believes that continued partnership with Special Olympics will change more mindsets throughout Brazil. “With my work, I can touch the hearts of parents and administrators in my community. [Special Olympics] can help increase this to a whole country. It’s very important. People with intellectual disabilities are showing their faces and they are not invisible anymore,” says Soraya.

Young girl dancing while a  young man plays the drums.

Students from Maria Therezinha School dance to the beat during the Cariocas Inclusive Games.

Photo by Raphael Louvivisse

Renato and Roberto are classmates who did not have an opportunity to attend school until they were already adults. Both have found a welcoming community and opportunities for growth at Maria Therezinha. Renato, a Special Olympics athlete who joined the school in 2019, dreams of studying tourism. He shares that Unified events such as the Cariocas Inclusive Games have improved his confidence. “I’m making friends and I’m supporting my health, and the Inclusive Games event has also earned me another medal,” says Renato proudly.

Roberto, a Unified partner who has been a student at Maria Therezinha since 2017, learned how to read and write at the school. He didn’t know anyone with intellectual disabilities before attending Maria Therezinha. Now he believes that as more schools partner with Special Olympics, they will help people see life from a different perspective and be more understanding toward people who are different from them. “Before joining the school, I was scared to learn about people with disabilities. But students here don’t judge anyone or put people into categories. They embody the true meaning of love. What I’ve learned here, besides education, is to act like this outside of school in my daily life,” Roberto says with heartfelt sincerity.

Special Olympics Brazil hopes to use the positive energy generated by the Cariocas Inclusive Games to encourage more involvement in Unified Schools from government ministries and local organizations. As both a coordinator who connects families with Special Olympics activities and as a teacher at Maria Therezinha School, Carla Siqueira Cassalta says that fostering and sustaining the representation of people with IDD in society is a mission that needs everyone’s support. Special Olympics Brazil and schools such as Maria Therezinha are leading the way in taking steps to achieve this goal. As Carla observes, “Unified programming offers people with intellectual disabilities the chance to have a presence in society. [The Inclusive Games] is a big step, and there is more work to be done.”