Through inclusive sports and school activities, a youth-based Special Olympics initiative called Unified Schools is proving what friends and families of people with IDD already know: everyone wins when everyone’s included.
The national program’s name says it all. “We’re trying to change this generation into a unified generation where there’s more acceptance of people of all abilities,” says Morgan Larche, Director of Special Olympics Unified Schools for Washington State.
135 schools in our state currently participate in one or more of Unified’s three component programs:
Competitive, skill development and recreational level sports include both students with disabilities (athletes) and those without (partners).
Inclusive Clubs and Youth Leadership
Clubs plan school activities focused around inclusion, acceptance respect and understanding to create a more inclusive school climate where everyone is knitted into the fabric of the school.
These activities include anything that lets students know that they can make everyday school activities inclusive (e.g., respect campaigns, school assemblies, pep rallies).
Schools that offer all three components, like North Thurston High School in Lacey, are known as Unified Champion Schools. At North Thurston, a lot of the activities of the Unified Club are organized around sports, but also include larger school awareness campaigns such as Spread the Word to End the Word, peer tutors, and school spirit events like Pack the Gym, which raised $1,700 last month to fund the Club’s activities.
Josie Kirk, a junior at North Thurston, remembers seeing students with disabilities in the hallways prior to becoming a Unified partner, but that was as far as their interactions went. “I never really knew them,” she says. “But as soon as I started playing soccer with Unified, I learned about all the kids. We built this friendship. We eat lunch together with, like, three of them. And it’s just super fun.”
Kenny Thai, one of the athletes she teams with, smiles shyly when asked about his favorite moments on the team. He holds up his hands and beams. “I shoot threes!”
“When he’s on point, he can shoot lots of threes,” his teacher, Michela Laverty, says. “The crowd goes wild.”
Kenny laughs and shakes his head as his teacher and friend brag about his popularity. “Everyone knows Kenny,” Laverty says, reminding him that he likes to say I’m playing for all my ladies out there.”
The laughter stalls when they’re asked about the difference the program has made in terms of inclusion. Josie and Kenny seem confused.
Laverty jumps in to help out. “It’s hard for the kids to see the difference because they forget. Before, our kids were separated. They didn’t have that opportunity to make friends. I don’t think Kenny recognizes the difference but everyone knows him. For the district tournament, people all over the place were making posters. There were five posters that said Kenny the Jet. His theme song is K-K-Kenny the Jet.”
Whether he notices or not, playing Unified has made the rest of the school experience better for Kenny. According to Laverty, “He wasn’t in a lot of [integrated] classes in his freshman year, but now he’s in weight training and he has the time of his life. They all cheer him on like it’s no big deal, but I think a big part of that is because he’s been a part of Unified and he’s now a part of the school.”
The Unified program at North Thurston is so popular, there’s a waiting list for students without disabilities who want to be partners. “Kids are always asking me how they can join,” says Josie. “Everyone wants in!”
North Thurston is not alone in showing how Unified creates inclusive school spirit. At Ephrata High School, Gavan Allen reflects on what the experience meant to him as a Unified partner. “I was partnered with Benji, who has played on our Unified Basketball team. Being a part of Unified Sports definitely has changed the way I think about people who learn differently and have different disabilities because I now realize they are just like me. Benji loves his family and siblings just as I do, he loves to play basketball just as I do, and most importantly, Benji loves to hang out and talk with his friends just as I do.”
“Being a part of Unified Sports definitely has changed the way I think about people who learn differently and have different disabilities because I now realize they are just like me. Benji loves his family and siblings just as I do, he loves to play basketball just as I do, and most importantly, Benji loves to hang out and talk with his friends just as I do.”
Forrest Budd, a former Unified athlete from Ephrata High School, says it was a great experience. “We got to know each other better through the sports. And playing for a team felt good. It felt like everybody was friendly. I felt included.”
It’s exactly what Special Olympics is aiming for— a world where common ground is created and relationships are formed for life. “Unified for life,” says Larche, “that’s our goal.”
Unified Sports are available throughout the state. Contact Morgan Larche to find out about Unified programs near you.
If your school does not participate in a Unified Schools program, let your principal, special education teacher and/or athletic director know you’d love to bring Unified to your school. Have them contact Morgan Larche to get started.
Follow North Thurston Unified on Twitter @NTHSUnified