Special Olympics In Person Onboarding

Special Olympics
TO: Andre Cohen, Vice President of Special Olympics North America
FROM: [NAME], Youth Activation & Engagement Specialist, Onboarding Project
RE: U.S. Youth Ambassador In-Person Onboarding Event

After 18 months of online meetings, the Communications Team plans to hold the first in-person onboarding event for our new class of U.S. Youth Ambassadors, a carefully selected group of youth who represent their state at a national level within the Special Olympics organization. Upon conversations with the COVID Mitigation Team and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the event has been approved if only fully vaccinated youth, coming from low-transmission states, attend. The purpose of this memo is to focus on how Special Olympics will communicate to the press if they find out that we are only allowing fully vaccinated youth who live in a low-transmission state to attend our gathering, even though our organizations mission is inclusion of all people. Additionally, this memo addresses how Special Olympics will communicate to the press if criticized for hosting an event for youth with varying ability levels and immune compromising conditions, despite still being in a pandemic.
The Challenge
Special Olympics must decide how they will communicate and defend their decision to host an event to the press, despite the potential exclusion of some, and possible health risks of the participants. The mission of Special Olympics is to, create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people (Special Olympics, n.d.a). Special Olympics values are summed up by their slogan, revolution is inclusion (Special Olympics, n.d.c). Hosting an event that does not allow certain individuals to attend could be deemed exclusionary by the public, creating a conflict of interest within the organization. Additionally, if the event spreads the coronavirus to participants, the organization must communicate why they hosted the event, despite publicly announcing that people with disabilities are, more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 (Special Olympics, n.d.b). This is supported by the CDC publicly stating that, some people with disabilities might be at an increased risk of becoming infected (CDC, 2021a).
The moral problem is whether Special Olympics is being loyal to their brands mission of inclusion and how they will communicate their position when held accountable by the press. There are internal stakeholders affected by these moral problems. Internally, the staff, youth with disabilities, and donors to the event, are affected by the outcome. Externally, the people with disabilities and their networks, served by Special Olympics, are affected by the outcomes as well. Each of these stakeholders cannot choose whether or not they will be affected because they are either present, funded the event, or are members of the Special Olympics movement.
The Approach
There were a few individuals involved in the examination of this moral issue. The first was Laura Brunner, our U.S. Youth Ambassador Specialist, who vocalized feeling uncomfortable that some of her students could not attend because of their vaccination status, especially the students who could not get the vaccine due to underlying health conditions. She felt these students were being punished for having a severe condition, which violates Special Olympics Code of Conduct which states the, time spent with Special Olympics will be a positive experience (Special Olympics, n.d.d.). If Laura felt that way, the students would seemingly feel even worse. This type of exclusion is exactly the opposite of what Special Olympics is trying to achieve. The communications team addressed this issue with our Chief Health Officer, Dr. Alicia Bazzano, who only repeated that there are no circumstances where unvaccinated participants, or those traveling from a high-infection area, could attend. This goes directly against the Special Olympics mission that we, focus on what our athletes CAN do, not what they cant (Special Olympics, n.d.e.). Although, when the issue was brought up with Sara Prescott, Senior Youth Leadership Manager, she stated that the pandemic is an unprecedented time, and we are following the best practice for inclusion. But, how could that be true if the Special Olympics’ website states, we have the power to ensure no one is forgotten during this critical time around the world (Special Olympics, n.d.e.).
The Causes
There are a few internal factors which contribute to the moral problem at hand. The first is Special Olympics never publicly released an updated Return to Play guideline. The Return to Play outlines what COVID protocols must be in place to ensure a safe event. This guideline has not been updated since June 29, 2021, which was before the Delta variant. The CDC (2021b) released strict COVID mitigation guidelines on July 27, 2021, as a response to the rampant Delta variant. Without amending the Return to Play guidelines, this directly puts everyone at risk for attending the event because the health measures are months out of date. Another internal factor, which contributes to the moral problem, is the power dynamic within Special Olympics. Many lower-level employees, including myself, feel it is an unsafe environment to share how we really feel about hosting this in-person event. When brought up in the past, senior management has not created a welcoming space for feedback. In fact, there has been no space for feedback at all – no dedicated working groups to discuss concerns or anonymous feedback forms. It feels as if this situation is only in the control of senior management, which is not ethically acceptable considering employee health is at risk. According to the Principles of the Ethical Practice of Public Health, their seventh value states, Each person in a community should have an opportunity to contribute to public health discourse (Public Health Leadership Society, 2002). This means, all stakeholders and anyone even remotely involved, should be given the opportunity to contribute to a health-related discussion. Additionally, this discussion should not be met with judgement or consequences from senior management.
There are other external factors which have contributed to the moral problem as well. Externally, it is very difficult to gauge whether or not it is safe to have an in-person event due to the varying COVID mitigation protocols from each state. As mentioned previously, youth participants are traveling from cities all over the United States, which means everyones perspective of COVID safety will be different. Additionally, an external factor worth mentioning is the politics behind COVID-19. It is a highly political issue, and by Special Olympics requiring all attendees to be fully vaccinated and from a low-transmission state, this could be framed by certain groups as pushing a political agenda. Not only could we be accused of being exclusive, but also of being partisan. It is a conflict of interest for Special Olympics to be publicly partisan because we receive funding and rely on donations from all groups and presidential administrations. This is yet another reason why hosting this in-person event is risky, it could jeopardize our non-partisan brand. If we choose to go through with the event, we may have to communicate our political stance to the press.
The Solutions
There are two solutions which could mitigate the moral problem. The first is to hold the event virtually. If the event was held virtually, everyone would be eligible to participate while feeling safe. Special Olympics is very familiar with digital events, and we even published an for our participants packed with Special Olympics Zoom backgrounds, coloring pages, and such as bingo boards and scavenger hunts (Special Olympics, 2021f). There are definitely pros and cons to hosting a Zoom-based event. A con is the potential Zoom fatigue it could create with our participants. Zoom fatigue is when users feel exhausted, usually caused from nonverbal overload, extreme focus, , and lack of mobility (Bailenson, 2021). This would threaten the engagement of our event and cause much more exhaustion for our students with intellectual and sensory disabilities.
On the contrary, a Zoom event would mend any safety concerns for participants and uphold Special Olympics mission of inclusion. Having a digital event would also open up new opportunities for engagement that are not possible during an in-person event. For example, the event could take place over multiple days, allowing participants to reflect on their new knowledge versus learning everything at once during a conference. Additionally, Zoom events are arguably more accessible, as participants can eat when they want, be in a safe environment, and have easier access to items which make them feel more comfortable. For example, individuals on the Autism spectrum often require sensory toys or sensory equipment, like headphones, to be able to focus. These objects may be unavailable in an in-person environment or during physical activities.
The second solution is to make the event hybrid, meaning that it will have in-person and digital components. This may be a simple solution, as everyone is included and those who qualify will be given the opportunity to still be in-person. A con of this idea is that conducting a hybrid event is extremely complicated and something our department has never done before. The goal of a hybrid event is to have all participants still receive the same amount of value from the content. This will be challenging as we have already planned discussion sections, small group breakouts, and other communicative activities that are not Zoom-centric. We would basically need to develop two different event schedules to accommodate both platforms. Additionally, to have a successful hybrid event, we will need speaker equipment, cameras, laptops, along with in-person materials as well. This style is not impossible, but it is more challenging. A big pro, if we were to pull this off, would be that everyone wins because everyone is included in the event. Unfortunately though, it may still be perceived that we are segregating students based on vaccination and state transmission rates. However, this is a chance we may need to take to gain approval from all.
Many issues were addressed in this memo, including how Special Olympics would communicate with the press if accused of being exclusionary, partisan, and reckless towards the health of youth with disabilities. It is in our best interest to change the course of action with our U.S. Youth Ambassador Onboarding event, as we are threatening our reputation and credibility as an organization. If you would like to discuss this matter further or if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to give me a call at [NUMBER] or email me at [EMAIL}. Thank you.

Bailenson, J. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the cause of zoom fatigue.
Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
CDC. (2021a). People with disabilities: Covid-19. Center for Disease Control and
Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/humandevelopment/covid-19/
CDC. (2021b). Delta variant: What we know about the science. Center for Disease Control and
Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/delta-variant.html
Public Health Leadership Society. (2002). Principles of the ethical practice of public health.
Special Olympics. (n.d.a). About our mission. Special Olympics.
Special Olympics. (n.d.b). Covid-19 information and resources. Special Olympics.
Special Olympics. (n.d.c). The revolution is inclusion. Special Olympics.
Special Olympics. (n.d.d). Coaches code of conduct. Special Olympics.
Special Olympics. (n.d.e). Our mission. Special Olympics.
Special Olympics. (n.d.f). Free special olympics e-swag. Special Olympics.

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