Student Well-Being Briefly Stated

6 Rules for Engaging Students With Intellectual Disabilities in Sports

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 21, 2022 3 min read
Giovannie Tanella, third from left, and Averill Zimmer, share a moment during a Unified Physical Education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.
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Unified sports and physical education programs are gaining traction as schools work to re-engage secondary students in sports after a pandemic dropoff.

These programs pair roughly equal numbers of students with intellectual disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome, and students without them for casual or competitive teams. Advocates of the programs, which are now in about 8,000 schools across 20 states, say they can help schools become more inclusive and also involve students who want to learn athletic skills without as much competitive pressure.

“The ultimate objective that we have is that students are playing together, working together, learning that everybody has value and that no matter what your ability level or your skill level, you can still be part of a team, part of the group, part of the fabric of the school,” said Andrea Cahn, the vice president of the Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools of North America.

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Saratoga Springs High School Physical Education teacher, Colleen Belanger, left, instructs Hunter Fiorillo, during a Unified Physical Education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. "I've been teaching for a long time and this is one of the best things I've ever done," said Belanger of teaching Unified P.E.
Saratoga Springs High School physical education teacher Colleen Belanger, left, instructs Hunter Fiorillo, during a unified physical education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. "I've been teaching for a long time and this is one of the best things I've ever done," said Belanger of the unified class.
Heather Ainsworth for Education Week

While basketball and track-and-field have been the most popular for unified teams, districts have adopted local competitions in a wide array of physical sports and now in e-sports as well. Students help each other develop skills, and teams in which students understand the rules well and can move into more formal competitions with other teams.

“It enables kids to show truly what their abilities are, not their disabilities,” said Audra Di Bacco, a school social worker and unified basketball coach at Columbia High School, in the East Greenbush central school district in New York. “And not just basketball, but socializing and making friends and feeling proud wearing their jerseys at school like other student athletes get to do.”

Cahn said evaluations of the programs over the last 15 years find participating students experience higher graduation rates and less bullying than those in schools that don’t have the programs.

Most schools that have a unified program include at least one coach with a special education background. Di Bacco said her school’s unified teams have been a partnership between the special education and athletic departments. Educators and coaches worked together to teach game rules and practical skills in accessible ways, including making videos to help students practice at home.

Nate Work, the principal at Pembroke Junior-Senior High School in New York, said the unified program has helped build long-term interest in inclusivity. “I’ve had some students that were partners [general education students on the unified team] that didn’t know what they wanted to do for a career. Once they were involved in that experience, they gained some understanding, and I’ve had a couple that graduated and went on to go to school to become special education teachers.”

The Special Olympics recommends unified programs follow six rules to ensure “meaningful involvement":

  • Every student gets to play.
  • Every student has an important role in each game; if students are not playing at the moment, they should be motivating students who are playing, helping others warm up, and so on.
  • Every student should get the chance to practice, develop, and show their skills.
  • All students and coaches ensure that the game is played safely.
  • Players and coaches are kind to each other, both the people on their own team and toward players on other teams.
  • All players train together as one team; there are no separate training sessions for particular players.

Brian Quinn, the director of Special Olympics International, said that unified sports should be “part of a broader inclusion strategy in schools” in which students with disabilities also get meaningful opportunities to plan social activities and have a voice in student leadership.

“There should be whole-school engagement, so that the message of inclusion and acceptance reaches the whole student body and it really permeates throughout the school and the school climate,” Quinn said.

For example, Di Bacco said her team plays competitive basketball games against other schools, but students who do not feel ready to play or are uncomfortable doing so can play a less-competitive game during half-time.

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