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.
Across the country, literally, sits McMinnville, Oregon (not too far from Portland), which has had a Unified Sports Program in place for about 4 years. Charlotte Smail assists in the coaching of the program and happens to also be a teacher with 20 years experience. She has seen very positive results from the program and told us, “Ours is one of very few programs that pays coaches like they do in other sports. We also receive Letterman’s awards and are in the awards assemblies for sports, but it can be a challenge to get the integration. This is a great program and I have been shocked, along with parents, at the remarkable progress. Not to mention, it does wonders for the atmosphere on the whole campus. It also opens up opportunities to work with teachers and we have several innovative projects we do with other classes. Unified sports are on elementary, middle school and high school campuses with both high school and adult program teams!” Passion is a shared sentiment when people speak of the program, and Charlotte feels very strongly that schools need to provide a sports program for special needs students. She encourages parents to start speaking to their local schools because she has seen the amazing changes in students who participate.
The Benefits Are Worth the Effort…
When reaching out to both Charlotte and Jeff, we wanted to know what was involved with getting started and what those reading this article can do in their local area. A shared response was that it is “challenging” to get going. Charlotte Smail went on to say, “Part of the challenge has been getting districts and athletic directors to see us as a “real” athletic program”. Many (not all, of course) school systems have large administration layers and an additional challenge must be, simply, getting through those layers. Jeff Hancock explained that while the challenge did take time, the results have been well worth it. He described it this way: “The hardest part of this program is getting the schools on board.
Most schools are on a tight budget and the thought of adding more costs to the budget is not easily accepted. While this program, as all other Special Olympics Programs, is free to participate in, it is not a free program. There are always costs incurred with any other newly formed program. This year there are 106 schools in Florida that are receiving this program at no cost through a statewide grant. I spent nearly 3 years talking with Bill Thomlinson (Executive Director for Student Services & Exceptional Student Education, St. Lucie County, Florida) about how to best integrate Special Olympics into the schools. After 2 years, he was able to get the high schools’ administration department, athletic directors and teachers union all in the same room. Then, it was a “slam-dunk”! Seriously, who can say ‘no’ to Special Olympics? It was a bit more involved than that, of course, but for the most part, that was how it evolved. Now each of the 5 high schools in St. Lucie County, Florida, has a staff liaison that works with me to get the most from each school. They work directly with the ESE teachers and the AD to schedule practices and recruit the Unified Partners. This year, we did not have the clubs and awareness aspect but we are working towards that goal for this coming year.”
The benefits are absolutely worth the effort. The Unified athletes are engaged in physical activity, social interaction and learn teamwork, among so many other benefits. The typical peers are able to gain invaluable understanding of their fellow students and this is something that can spread throughout the rest of their lives. It is similar to an analogy about ripples, “Our life ripples out, like a stone tossed into the water, and it has influence. That’s why it’s important that we’re at our best and that we’re influencing others for the good.”
When asked about getting started with this undertaking, Jeff summed it up using a very well-known motto of the ubiquitous sports company, that happens to be based in Oregon: Just Do It.
We couldn’t agree more.
We would like to personally thank everyone who contributed to this article with their experience, photos and passion.
Click here to find out more about Unified Sports and the Special Olympics
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]This post originally appeared on our September/October 2016 Magazine