Inclusion is Elemental was the phrase written on teacher, staff and student shirts on Wednesday at Trail Ridge Middle School as the school celebrated a Day of Inclusion with two very special guests.
“ Around the world, exclusion and discrimination continue to divide people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. We are changing that with grassroots action for inclusion,” stated the Special Olympics website.
The Day of Inclusion brings awareness to and teaches others how to include those with cognitive and physical disabilities in school communities.
After a week of inclusion challenges throughout the school, students from Trail Ridge Unified Club invited Jeff Clark and Dalton Risner.
Clark was the 2019 Special Olympic athlete of the year for Colorado. Clark participates in almost any sporting event can, although his favorite sport is tennis, he said despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Risner is an offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos, founder of RisnerUP — a nonprofit organization that focuses on inclusion — and board member on several Special Olympics committees.
Three Unified Club members joined Clark on stage, passing the microphone around the small circle while asking Clark questions about his time as a Special Olympic athlete and his feelings on the topic of inclusiveness.
“Inclusion means having everyone have an opportunity to be involved in sports and activities and having someone to sit with and having a friend,” Clark said.
In a study conducted by The Center for Developmental Disabilities Evaluation and Research E.K. Shriver Center and UMass Medical School, 78% of people with developmental disabilities reported having a friend outside of family and paid staff. The study related that an obstacle to making friends included a lack of experience forming close relationships, communicating or socializing with others.
For Clark, Special Olympics has provided him with ample opportunities to make friends and learn how to socialize.
Although he has a place he feels included, there are still times he does not. He told students that he sometimes sees his friends posting their interactions on social media and feels left out because he was not invited.
“I feel like sometimes they didn’t invite me and I feel left out, sad and lonely; like they didn’t want me around,” Clark said.
Shortly following this comment, Risner took the stage to talk about inclusion. Prior to beginning his speech, he spoke directly to Clark tell Clark that he could call Risner anytime since they were now buddies. “I’d be honored to hang out with you.”
While this may have seemed like a perfect opportunity for a sweet line, Risner was genuine in his invitation. He began his speech by telling students that there was a time in his life when he felt excluded.
As a young man, he was tall and overweight and other kids made fun of him. He shared that he had many conversations with his mom about his feelings when he was a kid.
Instead of letting it get the better of him, he found a path to push through and to turn his weight problem into a benefit. He found football. Driven to succeed no matter what others said, Risner worked hard to play Division 1 football at the University of Kansas.
Despite his success, he said he never forgot the people who helped get him there and discovered some that would change his life forever.
To get credit for a class, Risner was expected to attend a Special Olympics event in college. He said he didn’t really want to go but did so he wouldn’t fail the class.
When he arrived he was blown away at the sportsmanship displayed at the event and even met one of his best friends there, a Special Olympics athlete named Michael. The two have been close ever since and Michael will be part of Risner’s wedding in a few months.
Risner emphasized the importance of looking at people, whether the owner of a major footfall team or the janitor sweeping the locker room, with respect and kindness.
Risner encouraged students to pay attention to their education, to work hard, to be respectful but most importantly he hoped students understood the importance of being kind.
“I hope that they see someone that’s in the light that talks about the positive fun times in this world versus someone who talks about his nice car. Who gets up there and talks about how important it is to be kind, how important it is to include others, that is what I think is so important,” Risner said.