Unified Sports: A Great Way to Start Inclusion in a Fun and Positive Way
There are Unified Sports Programs all across the United States that are designed to promote, among other things, inclusion, acceptance, physical activity, friendship, respect, and understanding. We at Parenting Special Needs Magazine, have contacted two programs (one in Oregon and one in Florida) in an effort to better understand what is involved, hear about the success of the program and see how a Unified Sports Program might be implemented in schools that do not presently have a program in place. The Unified Sports program, established through Special Olympics, joins people with intellectual disabilities (Special Olympics athletes) and without (Unified partners), playing together on the same team to promote social inclusion and mutual respect. Through shared sports training and competition experiences, people of all abilities build relationships and have fun playing sports.
Showcasing their potential…
Sherry Wheelock, President/CEO of Special Olympics Florida, explains it this way, “The opportunity for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports alongside their peers without disabilities is invaluable, but I believe it is equally beneficial for those without disabilities to get to know and befriend individuals who are often labeled as “different.” Special Olympics athletes have extraordinary potential and so much to contribute but rarely are given the chance to show it. Through collaboration in Unified Sports, athletes improve their social and behavioral skills while showcasing their potential, and partners develop a broader sense of compassion and understanding. I most often hear partners say, “I thought I would be teaching the athletes, but they ended up teaching me. We serve more than 35,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities across the state and host more than 400 events each year in 23 sports. We currently offer Unified Sports teams in 15 sports including basketball, bocce, tennis, soccer, athletics (track and field), volleyball, golf, flag football, cheerleading, softball, bowling, cycling, equestrian, gymnastics and swimming”.
In Florida, for example, Unified Sports are officially active in more than 100 schools, but is not limited to student athletes. Special Olympics has no upper age limit, so once individuals with intellectual disabilities age out of the school system, it is even more vital that they maintain relationships and structure through organized sports activities.
More Than Sports In The Schools…
Jeff Hancock, Director Special Olympics Florida- St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee Counties, further explains that there are actually two programs initiated in the state, “The first is the original Unified Sports Program and the other is Project Unify. This is the school-based program that came together from the Unified Sports Model. Project Unify is more than just sports “in the school”, this is a full school engagement that uses sports as the basis and common link. The program has been accepted by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) as a varsity sport for Track and Field and for Basketball, which means that students with and without disabilities are able to receive a Varsity Letter for competing in a Special Olympics Event”. He went on to explain: “Along with the athletics, there are two other components that make a school a Project Unify School. The first is an inclusionary club. This club is to meet, at least, quarterly. In the best cases, this is a monthly club that meets and takes on a similar role in the school and community as other school civic clubs. The third part of Project Unify is a school-wide awareness campaign. In most schools this is done through the End the R-Word Campaign in which students and staff pledge to no longer use the R-word as part of their daily lives. Both the clubs and awareness campaign are done through student led groups with minimal teacher oversight.
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