Special Olympics Unified Sports is a climate changer – not in the global warming sense, but in the social weather patterns of a school. Educators recognize the complicated climate patterns of their student bodies all too well, many times bracing for the impact of the social segregation of students with physical and cognitive disabilities from students without disabilities. The ramifications on instructional time, classroom management and learning capacity is evident when the social climate of a school is unstable and overcast with self-imposed social segregation.
From an educational standpoint, the aforementioned segregation in the classroom setting evolved into inclusive classrooms beginning in the early 1970s with the help of legislation and the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the growth of inclusive educational models in the 1990s. While the law allowed for the socialization of students with disabilities and those without in public schools, it would take a more deliberate effort to engage the two groups to accomplish true inclusion.
It was Beau Doherty, president of Special Olympics Connecticut (SOCT) who worked with Eunice Kennedy Shriver to develop what would become Unified Sports – a fully inclusive sports program that unites Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates for training and competition.
In the early 1990s, Doherty and then Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Executive Director Mike Savage formed a partnership that would change the course of Unified Sports forever.
What started as a community activity became an official school program for students in Connecticut. According to George Synnott, director of Unified Sports CIAC, “the Unified Sports department of the CIAC started with one director and is now run by five CIAC staff members. They administer Unified Sports in 95 percent of all public schools and 76 middle schools in the state.”
Synnott witnessed this evolution first-hand as a school administrator.
“We had to have inclusionary classes during the school day in math, science, English and social studies,” Synnott said. “You had disabled and non-disabled students in one classroom. Then at two o’clock when the bell rang that was it for inclusion. Unified Sports created social inclusion and we saw a greater acceptance and understanding of students with disabilities. The partners gain as much – if not more – than the athletes and the result is a more positive climate in your school.”
Early on, Synnott recalls some growing pains.
“Getting the publicity and the programs out in front of an audience was an issue. Once [school administrators] see the program in operation they immediately buy in. Making it visible and getting it out in the community is where the CIAC and its relationship with the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS) helped through net-working,” Synnott said.
Soon, more states were joining the movement and Unified Sports programs were finding a home in high schools around the country aided by the support of the U.S. Department of Education in 2008. Today, more than 5,000 schools in the United States currently offer Unified Sports.
Joe Paddock, assistant executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), remembers the first time he got involved with Unified Sports as a district athletic director. “We saw Unified Sports as an opportunity for another group of students to get involved and provide our student partners with a different type experience,” Paddock said.
The AIA and Special Olympics Arizona (SOAZ), like the CIAC and SOCT, have an extremely close relationship which, according to Paddock, has been key to their successful growth. As state associations and schools consider starting Unified Sports programs, Paddock suggests “looking at the Special Olympics involvement in your communities and making contact with them. I think that if it’s not truly a joint venture, it will be difficult to be successful.”
Dan Masters, Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) assistant director, echoed Paddock’s thoughts of setting up a strong partnership with the state’s Special Olympics. The concept of Unified Sports as a joint effort has proven successful for new programs in Nebraska and Kentucky while maintaining its relevance in established programs in Connecticut and Arizona.
The NSAA and Special Olympics Nebraska (SONE) began discussions about a partnership in 2013. By the fall of 2016, SONE and the NSAA were launching the inaugural season of Unified Bowling. The 2017 Unified Bowling season had 11 more schools involved in regular-season participation and the championship event was locally televised.
This increase in participation and exposure has positively impacted the schools in Nebraska that participate.
“There has been a tremendous impact on school culture and climate. We have received so many positive comments about this being the most important activity the NSAA has added,” Masters said.
Similarly, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) partnered with Special Olympics Kentucky (SOKY) to offer its first Unified state event in Track and Field. In the fall of 2017, the KHSAA, in partnership with SOKY, added Unified Bowling as a state event.
“Personally, I have become truly humbled to oversee Unified Sports,” said Sarah Bridenbaugh, KHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees all Unified Sports. “This has allowed for me to work behind the scenes to provide opportunities for all student-athletes and to work with the amazing staff at SOKY. I have learned so many new things during my tenure at the KHSAA, but Unified Sports truly defines the meaning of teamwork and social inclusion.”
The growth of Unified Sports is a direct result of the partnerships established across the country between state associations and Special Olympics through shared missions and visions for high school participation and competition in sports. These relationships are the foundations for fostering understanding and true inclusion.
Through exhibitions and state championships occurring in at least 30 states across the country, athletes and partners, parents, teachers, school and athletic administrators and everyone watching have the opportunity to experience what education-based inclusion has been trying to provide since the early 1990s. Unified Sports found a way to break down the invisible social barriers that kept schools from being truly inclusive.
“Adding the Unified division at the state events has created a sportsmanship atmosphere that is like none other,” Bridenbaugh said. “Student-athletes support one another during competition, and we have received feedback that our schools are also seeing climate changes within the school system. Coaches have noticed partners and athletes wanting to help during the school day and with regular activities, not just athletics.”
It is with the wisdom of first-hand experiences like this that Masters said, “encourages schools to trust the process, to dive in rather than stick a toe in and to not worry about the budget. The increase in positive school climate will make up for any dollars spent.”
Climate change can be a scary concept, but for educators it is a welcomed side effect of the growth of Unified Sports in schools around the country. For those ready to dive in, or just learn more, the NFHS and Special Olympics have just released the revised online “Coaching Unified Sports” course, which is available at no cost on the NFHS Learning Center at www.NFHSLearn.com.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.