Connecticut schools are serving as models for the nation when it comes to providing sports programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
On January 25th, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance to schools and school systems throughout the nation, identifying their responsibility under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide quality sports programs to students with disabilities. Many states are looking at ways to address this charge. However, here in Connecticut, students with intellectual disabilities in over 170 elementary, middle and high schools are already participating in sports like soccer, basketball, track and volleyball with their peers – and they have been for over 20 years. These students participate in the Special Olympics Unified Sports® program.
Since 1992, Special Olympics Connecticut and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) have partnered to offer Unified Sports® in schools across the state and in that time, the program’s positive impact has been immeasurable.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports® program makes sports accessible for students with disabilities and brings athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without disabilities, called Unified Partners, together to train and compete on the same team. At the elementary level, students engage in non-competitive athletic activities designed to develop skills in a variety of sports. At the middle and high school level, they compete in statewide tournaments.
Moreover, Unified Sports® transforms students and schools both on and off the playing field. It helps create a more positive school climate by inspiring acceptance, inclusion and respect for all students. It inspires friendships and the inclusion of students with disabilities in other educational programs, such as the arts and academic clubs. It also builds self-esteem, encourages understanding and increases the sensitivity of its participants. And, it creates great leaders – as students become mentors and coaches for others.
“Here in Connecticut, we’re fortunate to have a strong, enduring alliance with the CIAC that has enabled the Unified Sports® program in our state to succeed and serve as an example to others,” said Beau Doherty, President of Special Olympics Connecticut.
The Unified Sports® program in Connecticut has, in recent years, expanded to include an Annual Youth Leadership Summit. The Summit is a one-day event that brings Unified Sports® participants from middle and high schools together to hear from inspiring guest speakers, share their Unified Sports® experiences and work together to enrich and grow the program at their schools. The Michael’s Cup Banquet, also held annually, honors and recognizes student athletes and Unified Partners who have distinguished themselves by demonstrating great sportsmanship, skill, teamwork and perseverance.
Special Olympics Connecticut and the CIAC also partner to bring Young Athletes, a sports program for those ages 2 through 7, Unified Art and “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaigns to end the use of the “R” word to Connecticut schools.
Connecticut is one of 19 states awarded a Project Unify Grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build positive school climates, increase Unified Sports® participation, and support student leaders in schools. Efforts to build the Unified Sports® program in all states continue. The National Federation of High Schools recently offered its members a Unified Sports® Coaching course online and there have been several national meetings held to address partnerships between interscholastic athletic associations and Special Olympics organizations in other states. For more information about the Special Olympics Connecticut Unified Sports® program, visit www.casciac.org or www.soct.org.