Unified Sports: Building Teamwork Between Students of all Ability Levels

Jul 25, 2014
Tagged with: Unified Sports: Building Teamwork Between Students of all Ability Levels

Students with special needs often feel ostracized in their schools, despite efforts to integrate them into the least restrictive environment. General Education (ed.) students sometimes don’t know how to interact with their peers with disabilities. They might ignore special ed. students, act overeager to help them or, in the worst scenarios, bully them.

Special Olympics developed the Unified Sports® program to combine students with and without intellectual disabilities. Sometimes, special ed. students learn sports skills that build their self-esteem. At other times, they simply get the chance to play and have fun with their peers. The beauty of Unified Sports is that it’s not just the special ed. students who benefit. In many cases, their typically developing peers get the most from the experience.


How the Program Works

Special Olympics developed Unified Sports with the idea that letting students play together and train together would both lead to better understanding and build positive relationships. Unified Sports shares the philosophy of all Special Olympics programs:

All team members should be from a similar age group, and they have comparable athletic abilities. Thanks to a new partnership with ESPN and Disney, Unified Sports is on track to grow to include one million participants, including athletes, teammates and coaches, by 2015.

Special education teachers (visit this page to learn more about earning a Master of Special Education degree) aren’t the only school community members that can promote and operate Unified Sports programs. Physical education teachers, parents and other community members can work together as coaches or partners. In many cases, Unified Sports does more than provide inclusion for those with disabilities, it has a transformative effect on the whole school environment.


Building a Unified Student Body

In February 2012, The New York Times profiled a high school in Aurora, Colo., which had introduced Unified Sports. One of the school’s special needs students, a six-foot-four 17-year-old named Shane, told the reporter that he had struggled with being picked on during the school day prior to joining Unified Sports. Shane’s coach, Cory Chandler, noted that Shane had struggled with anger problems, often throwing punches at coaches in the past. In addition to dealing with behavioral disorders, Shane also struggled with significant cognitive delays.

Chandler started coaching Unified basketball, scheduling games in between junior varsity and varsity contests. The program paired kids like Shane with partner athletes, and together, they faced off against other Unified Sports teams in the area.

Shane’s team went 8-1 for the season, and the Unified games often drew larger crowds than the school’s varsity games. The biggest change, though, was in the climate of the school.

Principal Kurt Wollenweber told the Times that Unified Sports had transformed his school’s culture. He described special education students sharing “high five’s” with popular athletes in the hallways. They were able to make new friends and to build self-confidence. “It was almost as if these kids weren’t noticed before we began doing this. I don’t think anyone realized how powerful they are.”


How to get Involved

Anyone interested in starting a Unified Sports program at their schools can take the following steps:

  • Contact a local Special Olympics office. This directory can link people from all over the world with their nearest Special Olympics office. If teams already exist, then Special Olympics can explain how to get involved. Where there are no teams, Special Olympics can explain how to get started.
  • Recruit participants, partners and coaches. Unified Sports teams have equal numbers of students with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and students without intellectual disabilities (teammates). The students should have similar athletic abilities. In addition, recruiters need to find a positive coach and a crew of partners that can assist with logistics and transportation. Special Olympics has partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to offer a free online training titled “Coaching Unified Sports®” located at: http://www.nfhslearn.com/.
  • Find sponsors. Many local businesses and even large corporations are willing to sponsor Unified Sports teams. Whether they’re willing to provide money, free refreshments or T-shirts for the team, their support can be invaluable.

It’s not enough to give people with disabilities the chance to play. They need to see that they contribute to the team’s success. In addition to seeing how much they have to give on their own, they can help typically developing peers to recognize their spirit. As the Special Olympics Athlete Oath says, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

What are your thoughts on Unified Sports?


Author: Chris Meloni

  • bobl07

    This is just an outstanding program serving so many with Intellectual disabilities. Kudos to everyone involved that make it possible.