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Unified Sports: More Than Just a One-Day Event

By Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA on October 28, 2020 hst Print

When the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) published the Dear Colleague Letter on January 25, 2013, it detailed the importance of creating athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. It was this mandate that caused Unified and Adapted Sports programs to grow in popularity throughout the nation.

Schools have taken different approaches to meet the recommendations put forward in the Dear Colleague letter ranging from inclusive exhibition contests occurring during pregames or halftimes of varsity games, to hosting Unified contests during the school day to increase student awareness and support for all student- athletes.

Testimonials show these events are important in creating more compassionate and inclusive environments while breaking pre-existing stereotypes, but Unified can be much more than just one day in a school year or season. In fact, when we push the limits of what we can do with Unified programs, we fulfill the OCR letter to “expand” our programs so that all stakeholders get the opportunity to benefit from meaningful co-curricular participation.

To expand Unified opportunities, schools can broaden their vision by exploring beyond a one-day event and examine how all the facets of a campus can promote inclusion such as creating Unified Athletic Leagues, establishing Unified theatre and piloting curricular crossover programs.

Establishing Unified Athletic League Schedules

It is no secret that single-day Unified contests with rival schools can be meaningful experiences. For example, two schools may schedule a Unified Basketball contest to take place before the varsity game. Schools throughout the nation praise how these games have changed not only the culture of a team, but entire communities as they allow participants and spectators to see genuine teamwork focused on a meaningful participation for all.

With further creativity, schools can explore sustaining these events through a league season. Most varsity athletic programs schedule home and away contests with schools in their leagues. Duplicating such a schedule for Unified programs does present challenges for many schools; however, playing half the league schedule, and balancing home and away contests over a two-year period, allows Unified participants to not only shine on their one day against the school rival, but also to experience the fullness of being a teammate through an entire season of sport.

When students are given more time to work together, and they experience the excitement of playing home and away games over a season, they learn more from each other. Consequently, they become better teammates, which builds confidence and stronger friendships that can transcend an athletic game or season.

When designing league schedules, it is important to realize that adult leaders can and should exercise flexibility. For instance, leagues that choose to run Unified Basketball games may want to consider having a running clock, shorten practice times, limit the number of contests a team can play, and schedule games on alternate days of varsity games.

If athletic leaders adopt the goal of creating Unified programs that provide meaningful athletic experiences, schools can adjust traditional norms of how they view participation so that Unified teams become a part of the athletic department and experience all the best benefits of league competition.

Furthermore, schools may even want to explore adding a Unified sport for each season of athletic competition. In this way, all students, including those with disabilities, have an opportunity to participate in athletics throughout an entire school year.

Think Outside Athletics…the Unified Play

As Unified Sports have grown in popularity, it is not surprising that other cocurricular activities have recognized a new opportunity for inclusion. Unified Theatre, creating opportunities for students to work together in the performing arts, has become a new way for general education students to partner with those with disabilities.

Most prominent of resources available for Unified Theatre may be the Special Olympics Play, “It’s Our School, Too.” Production runs of this play not only provide a positive message to the participants; they have been praised by entire communities as revealing the power and vision of a more inclusive world. Local Special Olympics chapters have more information on this outstanding play and are a great resource when exploring how to bring it to school communities.

Curricular Crossover – Athletes and Special Needs Students Bridging Athletics and Academics

One of the pillars of being part of any high school athletics team is finding meaningful ways for athletes to exercise citizenship and serve the community. Most athletic teams explore how to conduct service learning outside the school campus, such as community clean-up events or donation drives for specific service organizations. Unified programs have a unique opportunity to put general education and special needs team members in positions to transform their schools inside their campus walls through curricular crossover.

Although it is the goal of many schools to achieve full inclusion in all academic classes, few models exist. Curricular Crossover students, regardless of academic challenges, are brought together in all types of class settings. General education students invite their special needs teammates to attend one general education academic period during a predetermined window of days during or after their season of sport. General education teammates are given the roll of organizer as they not only talk to their special needs teammates to determine their teammates academic subject interest, but they also work with the academic teacher to determine how best to make a welcoming and meaningful experience.

For example, the general education teammate may learn that his/her teammate is most interested in science and the general education student has a scheduled chemistry class. The student works with the chemistry teacher and the Unified coach to select an appropriate meaningful day that both students can attend, such as a lab day. On the given day, the Unified teammates go to class together and work together on the class activities.

The outcomes of this type of curricular crossover are threefold:

  1. There is a benefit to special needs teammates as they can access grade-level content in an academic subject area.
  2. The general education teammates learn valuable leadership and organization skills as they work with their coach, academic teacher and teammate.
  3. These classes not only help teachers reframe their thinking on how to teach and include all students, but the special needs teammates provide valuable contributions to all of the students in class, and entire classes of students realize everyone has value in a unified community.

Final Thoughts

Unified Sports continue to change the landscape of high school athletics and create an environment that promotes equity and leadership while breaking traditional stereotypes. When adult leaders design multi-faceted Unified programs, they allow their communities to shine. General education and special needs students gain an opportunity to participate throughout the year instead of only a one-day event, and schools are more likely to experience long-term benefits of creating a more supportive and inclusive community for everyone.