Unified Sports levels the playing field for students with disabilities

Viviana Nicastro, a senior at Saratoga Springs High School in New York, said her pre-pandemic gym class was often an exercise in doing as little as possible while people watched.

“Not many people would try it in the gym,” she said. “There wasn’t much encouragement. There were a select few people who really knew how to play a sport and then the rest were discarded a bit – not out of respect for the teacher per se, but [by] the students as a whole.”

This year, Nicastro is participating in a unified physical education class structured to include both general education students and students with intellectual disabilities. While Nicastro is in general education, she said the difference in structure and tone was important for her to engage in class.

“At Unified PE, I think all of the activities right now are a test of your skills, but also a learning experience for everyone,” she said. “So you’re helping other people while you’re learning, you’re doing it together, and everyone’s more involved. All cancel each other out.”

In its first survey of college athletic participation since the pandemic, the National Federation of State High School Associations found that the number of students participating in unified athletic programs has increased nearly tenfold, from about 5,500 in the 2018-19 school year to nearly 48,000 2021-22. Twenty states now have counties with unified physical education programs or varsity teams, twice as many states with unified programs before the pandemic.

That surge comes amid broader declines for many varsity team sports across the country during the pandemic. Districts across the country set up unified teams 17 different sportsfrom mainstays like basketball, softball and track and field competitions to bass fishing, bocce ball and corn tossing.

Colleen Belanger, a physical education teacher and unified basketball coach at Saratoga Springs High School in New York, said the unified program has expanded in part because more students need a more supportive environment to get involved in school again. Belanger has about 30 to 40 students each on the school’s unified basketball and bowling teams, as well as about 60 students in the unified physical education classes, which this year has had to expand sessions and put some students on the waitlist because demand has been so high.

Athletic director Rebecca Gentile said the Corning-Painted Post school district in New York established a unified basketball team in the 2018 season prior to the pandemic and has since expanded into bowling as well.

“You have students with disabilities and their partners who are students without disabilities working in teams, so creating opportunities for inclusion for our students is unique,” Gentile said.

While athletes cannot play on both a unified and regular team for the same sport, general education athletes often participate in unified teams during the off-season, e.g.

How unit sport works

Unified physical education programs bring stable ratios—often roughly equal numbers—of students with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, to their general education peers in teams or classes. The programs are led by coaches trained in both athletics and universal access to special education. The approach differs from adapted sports, which cater to athletes with physical disabilities. Students with and without disabilities are treated equally in the unified sport, rather than general education athletes mentoring those with disabilities. And unified teams follow the normal cross-competitive interscholastic regulations for their sports.

“We’re not talking about cutthroat and victory at any cost. What we are talking about is following the rules of the sport, and whether two teams have high-functioning student-athletes or even teams of low-functioning student-athletes, they can still have competitive play and all achieve the same benefits…of working together towards a common goal and of overcoming adversity,” said Todd Nelson, associate director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which has run unified interscholastic sports in the state for a decade. “Unfortunately, there is a mindset that students with disabilities cannot deal with such situations. Well they can. We have seen it countless times in all schools.”

Brian Quinn, the director of Special Olympics International, said the unified sport has grown steadily over the past 15 years, “but I think in the last few years in particular it’s reached a tipping point to become mainstream.”

Sports can also provide a way to help students re-engage socially and academically from isolation during the pandemic, which studies have shown has hit both youth in general and students with disabilities in particular hard.

“I think there’s a strong desire across the country not only to see athletics as a top-level sport for a select number of individuals, but to get all students involved in their school, to give them that school pride and to get them excited about coming to class ‘ said Quinn.

one Evaluation 2021 in the American Educational Research Journal found that schools that implemented unified sports and related leadership and engagement programs saw a 1.1 percentage point increase in graduation rates for all students — and a 1 percentage point increase in graduation rates for students with disabilities, 4 percentage points – compared to schools that have not introduced a uniform sport. It and other studies have also suggested that both students with disabilities and students in general education (called “partners” in unified teams) report feel more integrated and engaged in school when participating in uniform programs.

“It’s just a positive vibe”

From left, Taylor Krogmann, Olivia Ebert, Viviana Nicastro, and Grace D'Abate present during a Unified Physical Education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, NY, Thursday, November 3, 2022.

“As a school principal, I’ve seen that athletics can sometimes be the best and sometimes the worst. And unfortunately, bad times often come in athletics, whether it’s parents yelling at officials or kids yelling at kids,” said Nate Work, principal of Penbroke Junior and Senior High Schools at Penbroke Central Schools in New York. “Anything that goes out the window with Unified Sports. If children of both teams score, Everyone claps and cheers. Nobody yells at the officers. It’s just such a positive vibe.”

Participation in Empire State’s unitary sports declined early in the pandemic, Nelson said, in part because some student-athletes were more likely to have medical conditions that put them at greater risk if they contracted COVID-19. Audra diBacco, the school social worker and unified basketball coach at Columbia High School, said the school set up a virtual classroom specifically for students in the unified athletic program during the pandemic’s virtual classes, where coaches could send weekly practice activities and other messages to keep students busy . The student-athletes on the unified basketball team eventually created a video of themselves performing dribbling moves and virtually “passing” the ball.

Though rebuilding is slower than varsity teams, New York’s unified sport “has exploded statewide” this year, Nelson said, in terms of both the number of programs and the students participating in them. For example, while a typical basketball team consists of 12 to 15 players, this year many New York schools had uniform basketball teams of 25 to 30 players.

To build a successful unified athletic program, Nelson recommended that district leaders, athletic directors, special education teachers and parents come together to identify the sports that best suit students and to recruit special and general education athletes.

At Saratoga Springs, Nicastro plays varsity field hockey but last year joined the school’s unified bowling team as a partner. “The relationships I’ve built through these programs have — it might seem cheesy to say — but they’ve been life-changing,” Nicastro said. She has found that students are more likely to cheer on and befriend students from other school teams when playing uniform games, and that students are more likely to support each other when learning unfamiliar sports.

“It’s not just a learning experience for some people, it’s for everyone,” Nicastro said. “For example, I’m terrible at bowling. Sometimes I don’t even get more than 100 points, or sometimes I get halfway through. And the best part is that, say you scored 25 points, everyone is still clapping and cheering for you.

“I was kind of introduced to a community where there was such inclusion,” she added. “I wanted it, but I didn’t know it existed [one] until I found it.”


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