Viviana Nicastro, a senior at Saratoga Springs High School in New York, said her physical education classes before the pandemic often were an exercise in doing as little as possible while people were watching.
“Not a lot of people would try in gym,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of encouragement. There were a select few people who really knew how to do one sport, and then the rest were kind of discarded a little bit—not in the respect of the teacher per se, but [by] the students as a whole.”
This year, Nicastro participates in a unified P.E. class, structured to include both general education students and those with intellectual disabilities. While Nicastro is in general education, she said the difference in structure and tone has been important for her in engaging in class.
“In unified P.E. right now, I think that all of the activities are a test of your ability, but also like a learning experience for everyone,” she said. “So you’re helping other people while you’re learning, you’re doing it together, and everyone is more involved. Everyone is lifting each other up.”
In its first survey of high school sports participation since the pandemic, the National Federation of State High School Associations found that the number of students participating in unified sports programs has risen nearly tenfold, from about 5,500 in the 2018-19 school year to nearly 48,000 in 2021-22. Twenty states now have districts with unified physical education programs or varsity teams, double the number of states with unified programs pre-pandemic.
That increase came amid broader declines for many varsity team sports nationwide during the pandemic. Around the nation, districts field unified teams in 17 different sports, from mainstays like basketball, softball, and track and field competitions to bass fishing, bocce, and corn toss.
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 more supportive environments to re-engage in school. Belanger has about 30 to 40 students each on the school’s unified basketball and bowling teams, as well as about 60 students in unified P.E. classes, which had to expand sessions and waitlist some students this year because the demand was so high.
Athletic Director Rebecca Gentile said the Corning-Painted Post area school district in New York started a unified basketball team before the pandemic in the 2018 season, and has since expanded to bowling as well.
“You have students with disabilities and their partners who are students without disabilities working together on teams, so it’s unique in creating opportunities for inclusion for our students,” Gentile said.
While athletes cannot play on both a unified and a regular team for the same sport, Gentile said general education athletes often participate in unified teams during their off seasons, such as a player on a regular spring varsity basketball team joining the winter unified bowling team.
How unified sports works
Unified physical education programs pair stable ratios—often roughly equal numbers— of students with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, with general education peers on teams or in classes. The programs are led by coaches trained in both athletics and universal access for special education. The approach differs from adapted sports, which are geared toward athletes with physical disabilities. Students with and without disabilities are on equal footing in unified sports, rather than having general education athletes mentor those with disabilities. And unified teams follow normal competitive interscholastic regulations for their sports.
“We’re not talking about cutthroat and win-at-all-cost. What we’re talking about is following the rules of the sport, and whether two teams have high-functioning student athletes that are participating, or even teams with low-functioning student athletes, they can still have a competitive game and get all the same benefits ... of working together for a common goal and overcoming adversity,” said Todd Nelson, the assistant director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, who has been running unified interscholastic sports in the state for a decade. “Unfortunately there’s some mindset that students with disabilities can’t handle that type of situation. Well, they can. We’ve seen it countless times across schools.”
Brian Quinn, the director of Special Olympics International, said unified sports have been growing steadily over the last 15 years or so, “but I think the last few years in particular, it’s ramped up to a tipping point to become mainstream.”
The sports may also provide a way to help students reengage socially and scholastically from isolation during the pandemic, which studies show hit both adolescents in general, and students with disabilities, in particular, hard.
“I think there’s a strong desire around the country for athletics to be seen as more than just elite sports for just a select number of individuals, but about engaging all students in their school, giving them that school pride, and getting them excited to come to class,” Quinn said.
One 2021 evaluation in the American Educational Research Journal found that schools that implemented unified sports and their related leadership and engagement programs saw a 1.1 percentage-point bump up in graduation rates for all students—and a 1.4 percentage point increase in graduation rates for students with disabilities—compared with schools that did not implement unified sports. It and other studies have also suggested both students with disabilities and general education students (called “partners” in unified teams) report feeling more included and engaged in school when participating in unified programs.
‘It’s just a positive vibe’
“As a high school principal, I’ve seen that athletics can be the best at times, and it can be the worst at times. And unfortunately, a lot of the bad times come out in athletics, whether it’s parents screaming at officials or kids screaming at kids,” said Nate Work, the principal of Pembroke Junior and Senior High Schools in Penbroke Central Schools in New York. “All that goes out the window with unified sports. When kids from both teams score, everybody, everybody claps and cheers. Nobody’s screaming at the officials. It’s just such a positive vibe.”
Participation dropped in the Empire State’s unified sports early in the pandemic, Nelson said, in part because some student athletes were more likely to have medical conditions that put them at higher risk if they contracted COVID-19. Audra diBacco, the school social worker and unified basketball coach at Columbia High School, said during virtual instruction in the pandemic, the school created a virtual classroom specifically for students in the unified sports program, where coaches could send weekly practice activities and other messages to keep students engaged. The student-athletes on the unified basketball team eventually created a video of themselves showing off dribbling moves and “passing” the ball to each other virtually.
While slower to rebuild than varsity teams, unified sports in New York have been “exploding across the state” this year, Nelson said, both in the numbers of programs and the students participating in them. For example, he said, while a typical basketball team includes 12-15 players, unified basketball teams at many New York schools this year have ranged from 25-30.
To build a successful unified sports program, Nelson recommended district leaders bring together athletic directors, special education teachers, and parents to identify the sports likely to be the best fit for students, as well as recruit special and general education athletes.
At Saratoga Springs, Nicastro plays varsity field hockey, but joined the school’s unified bowling team as a partner last year. “The relationships that I’ve built through these programs have—it might seem cheesy to say—but they’ve been life-changing,” Nicastro said. She has found students more likely to root for and make friends with students from other school teams at unified matches, and students tend to be more supportive of each other when learning unfamiliar sports.
“It’s not only a learning experience for some people, but it’s kind of for everyone,” Nicastro said. “Like, I’m terrible at bowling. I sometimes don’t even score over 100 or make it halfway there sometimes. And, the best part about it is that, say you score 25, everyone’s still clapping and cheering you on.
“I was kind of introduced into a community where there was such inclusion,” she added. “I had wanted that, but I didn’t know that there was [one] until I found it.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Unified Sports Level the Playing Field For Students With Disabilities