The world of sports is not only divided by gender and level, but also by ability, which is a broader, often overlooked, boundary. Athletes with physical disabilities usually do not compete with able-bodied athletes—hence the creation of world-renown events like the Paralympics. But what about those with intellectual disabilities (ID)? Should they be separated from athletes without ID when competing?
According to the concept of Unified Sports, the answer is no. Created and developed by Special Olympics, Unified Sports® brings athletes with and without ID together on the same team. Around 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports programs, which offer opportunities for students with ID to not only play for their school teams, but also interact with those without ID, breaking down stereotypes and promoting social inclusion in the process.
Across the nation, Special Olympics state chapters work alongside state athletic associations to promote Unified Sports and inclusive high school environments for students with ID through the Unified Champion Schools (UCS) Program. According to the American Institutes for Research, UCS are schools with “a whole-school intervention that aims to promote social inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in their schools…through inclusive activities that occur within the normative contexts of the school.”
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) is a part of this mission to spread Unified Sports, offering Unified Basketball and Unified Track & Field. In Massachusetts alone, there are 211 certified Unified Champion Schools.
When looking at the wide range of sports offered on the high school’s athletics webpage, the unified sports program: Unified Outdoor Track, coached by head football coach Jesse Davis, stand out.
The high school’s Unified Track team is a spring co-ed program that looks for student-athletes who want to improve their physical fitness and develop their skills in track and field, and most importantly, promote acceptance and inclusion. For Davis, what makes coaching Unified “one of the most rewarding and fun experiences [he has] had as a coach at WHS” isn’t just the fun practices held outdoors during a great time of year, but also the opportunity to see his athletes build relationships with one another as teammates.
“I wanted to be a part of a program that focuses on being good teammates both inside and outside of the building,” said Davis. “[I love] watching our athletes connect with each other during the school day, whether it’s a high five in the hallways or in the cafe during lunch.”
The students on the team enjoy the program and the close-knit community it creates as much as Davis does.
“I joined Unified track initially to be more involved with the community and gain perspective. I have learned a lot while doing Unified, including the importance of kindness and selflessness,” said Rory Morton ’23, a member of the team. “I feel as if Unified is a little community with amazing people and supportive teammates!”
Xavier Ferrara ’23 agrees, saying that his experience with Unified has been “fun and inspiring”.
“You do not necessarily need to compete for state championships to be a team,” Ferrara said. “You just need to create lasting relationships and memories with a group of people.”
Though the team does engage in competition throughout the season with neighboring towns like Natick and Framingham, unlike most other sports, Unified Track does not center around scoring points or winning competition.
“From participating in the program I have learned that the end result of the meet is not what’s important, but that working together as a team and getting to know one another is the most important part,” said Bebe Cloaninger ’23, another member of the team.
For special educator Alison Poltrino, the unified track program and its emphasis on teamwork and inclusion has been—and continues to be—a valuable experience for her students in the special education programs at the high school.
“My students have been a part of this all along. It’s such an incredible program,” Poltrino said. “The coaches are amazing and the students have such an amazing time.”
In Unified Sports, the “unified” mentality is not meant to stay limited to sports; the goal is to integrate that core idea of social inclusion into the whole school, from its athletic fields to its classrooms.
However, for the students within our high school’s special education programs, besides being able to take elective classes which are unified and participating in the Unified Track program, there aren’t many social inclusion opportunities. Poltrino wishes there were more.
“In previous years we have seen more students engaged in clubs like Friends Forever. In the past several years that has declined,” Poltrino said. “We understand that students have so many things on their plates, especially once they reach high school. I would love to coordinate with any students who would want to create increased social opportunities.”
Similarly, Davis hopes to expand the presence of unified sports at the high school. For those who would like to learn about the Unified Track program, the Unified Track team will have its first Instagram account set up this spring. Additionally, Davis is working on getting a Unified Strength and Conditioning team as a winter sport for next year.
“I hope we continue to grow the program and promote inclusion in athletics,” said Davis, when asked what he hoped the future of Unified Sports would look like. “Oftentimes we focus on the least important parts of athletics which are the final scores, and should really be focusing on what it takes to be a great teammate and human being. That’s what Unified Sports are all about.”
And ultimately, to break down barriers is to acknowledge that there really shouldn’t be any divide in the first place.
“I would love for everyone to understand that we all learn differently and we all have strengths. There is no better or worse than others,” said Poltrino. “We should celebrate our strengths and our differences. They make us who we are.”