A Family Striving for Inclusion: Special Olympics Senegal’s Story

Yacine (center) with her mother and Special Olympics Senegal coaches after a Unified Schools activity.

In the past year, Special Olympics Senegal has been successful in spreading the message of inclusion in its participation with Play Unified: Learn Unified, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). To date, the country has developed a network of 27 Unified Schools and has engaged hundreds of students of all abilities in Unified Sports and awareness sessions.

An effective strategy Senegal Olympics Senegal has utilized to reach these impressive numbers is involving family members of people with intellectual disabilities in programming. In many communities across Senegal, multiple generations live together in one household and extended family members are heavily involved in each other’s daily lives. This collectivist culture forms strong family units, and to the benefit of Special Olympics Senegal, it greatly assists in recruiting new Special Olympics athletes and partners.

Young girl talking into a microphone.

Aby contributes to a discussion at a Unified event.

The impact of this strategy is evident in the story of Aby and Yacine. Aby is a high school student in the town of Bignona, located in the southern region of the country. Aby’s cousin, Yacine, lives in the same neighborhood. Aby and Yacine are not just cousins; they’re also close friends. The two often take walks together in the afternoons and help each other with chores and cooking.

“What I really love about Yacine is that she loves people and in general likes to help people out,” says Aby.

Aby says Yacine is playful, curious, and always fun to be around. Outside of the company of her family, however, Yacine hasn’t always been able to show off her personality. Yacine has Down syndrome and has experienced bullying from others because she’s different.

Aby says when people bully Yacine, it’s hurtful to her whole family and doesn’t allow for Yacine to be herself.

Group of five people in an activity.

Yacine (green shirt) participates in a Unified activity with athletes and partners.

“Whenever we go out and people make fun of her, it always breaks my heart. People call her slurs, and I try my best to educate them and remind them that she has a name, and her name is Yacine. And if they want to talk to her or address her, they should address her by that name,” says Aby. “Whenever people bully Yacine, it always pains me to the core. It feels almost like they are calling me those slurs too,” she says.

This past year, Aby’s high school became involved with Special Olympics. At her school, Aby and fellow classmates participated with Yacine and other Special Olympics athletes in Unified Sports and educational sessions on intellectual disabilities.

As a result of these Unified activities, Aby has noticed a significant improvement in the mindsets of people in her and Yacine’s neighborhood. She says Yacine has been embraced by her peers and has felt welcomed in the community.

“Nowadays whenever we go to [Unified Sports] training it’s always fun, and it’s never awkward, because people know what and what not to say to her. Before she used to be all by herself and closed to the world, but we have witnessed Yacine being more open to people and more talkative,” says Aby. “That is the change that Play Unified: Learn Unified made in her life,” she says.

Large group of school aged young adults.

Aby and Yacine celebrate a Unified activity with fellow athletes and partners.

By bringing students of all abilities together, barriers of exclusion in Aby and Yacine’s neighborhood have been broken. Moving forward, Special Olympics Senegal hopes that Aby and Yacine’s story can be a model to others in Senegal of the positive impact that inclusion provides to people with intellectual disabilities and their families.