The inclusion of students with disabilities is an important focus for schools and state associations. It provides encouragement for students who traditionally have not had many opportunities to participate in education-based athletics.
At its March meeting, the NFHS Task Force for Inclusion of Students with Disabilities received a report that indicated 18 states have developed strong partnerships with Special Olympics. One of those states is New York, which is gearing up to host its second season of Unified Sports basketball after conducting a successful pilot program last year.
“We’ve partnered with Special Olympics New York, who has been an outstanding partner working on this with us,” said Todd Nelson, New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) assistant director. “Special Olympics is the worldwide leader in working with individuals with disabilities in the interscholastic field, so they’ve been a great partner.”
In order to begin a pilot program, Nelson said the NYSPHSAA first created a Youth Activation Committee, made up of youth leaders from participating schools, to help raise awareness and acceptance of students with disabilities and support the team.
“In essence, it’s a booster club for the Unified basketball team,” Nelson said.
Last year’s pilot program in NYSPHSAA’s Section 2 featured students with disabilities, both intellectual and physical, playing basketball alongside students without disabilities to form one team. The 12 teams played a six-game, regular-season schedule, with a culminating event played at the same venue that hosted the NYSPHSAA boys basketball championships just a few months before. The games are played by the same rules and regulations as their able-bodied classmates, and Nelson said that has helped the sport gain recognition.
“Because they are required to follow the same rules and regulations as our other interscholastic programs, the other students in the school districts see that this is a valid program,” Nelson said. “It’s authentic and the respect level and acceptance have just been overwhelming in the schools.
“There’s been story after story about how the community has come together as one to support the Unified basketball program. It’s just been incredible.”
In August, the NYSPHSAA approved Unified Sports as an official program, so this year Section 2 will no longer be considered a pilot program. The season-ending event will feature a postseason tournament with semifinals, a final and a consolation game. Another section will be starting the pilot program this year, and Nelson said more expansion is in the works.
“We’re in two sections, and next year we’ll be expanding to two more sections,” Nelson said. “It’s our hope over the next four years that all 11 sections will have participated in this pilot program.”
The expansion will include other sports as well. Nelson said the plan is to add Unified bowling as a winter option and down the line, cross country might be added to offer a Unified opportunity in the fall.
“We’re hoping that by expanding to bowling, we’re going to be able to include many more students that might have disabilities, like students in wheelchairs where it’s not safe or appropriate for them to be playing in a Unified basketball game,” Nelson said. “We’re hoping this sport offering is going to expand those opportunities for students to be involved in interscholastic athletics.”
The positive effect that Unified Sports has had on students with disabilities in the state has already been evident to Nelson, who has been in education for more than 20 years.
“By far, this has been the most impactful program that I’ve ever been involved with,” Nelson said. “With this program, they are representing their school just like other students that they walk around the hallway with all day long.”
Nelson said it has even given students the confidence to try out for other sports and activities.
“It was interesting when we met with the schools that participated last spring, a lot of the students, both regular education students and students with disabilities, actually try out for another interscholastic sport in the fall, whether it be cross country, soccer or football, because of the experience they had with the Unified Sports team,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t an unknown to go out and try out for another team. They weren’t afraid.”
Juli Doshan is the graphic arts technician/editorial assistant in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department.