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Unified Sports and other little green shoots

Have you heard of Unified Sports? I caught a quick story on the local news yesterday, and it’s a brilliant idea. In Unified Sports, which sprung out of the Special Olympics organization, students with and without intellectual disabilities practice and play together on all sorts of athletic teams, from basketball to volleyball to figure skating.

I can’t seem to find online the story I heard, but one girl told the NHPR reporter that she got involved simply because she wasn’t ready for the regular basketball season to be over — so she signed up to be a “partner,” helping kids with disabilities to pass, dribble, and score. The rules of this league stipulate that partners may not score more than 25% of the points in a game; but in the most recent season, the partners didn’t score at all, choosing instead to pass the ball to their developmentally disabled teammates. As the team practiced and played together, friendships developed naturally between kids who, in other circumstances, would never have spent time together at all.

The games are less fierce and more cooperative, but they are real games, and part of real tournaments. The program has recently taken off in a big way in high schools across New England. The games are lively and exciting, but “[t]he best thing we found out that happened last year were all the things that happened off the court,” [Project Unify director at Special Olympics Maine Ian] Frank, Frank said.

“The traveling to games, putting on the uniform with the school colors, playing in a home gym, socializing with students that typically you wouldn’t have, the barriers that got broken down and the doors that got opened, obviously the things that are happening are very positive to all of us and the students involved.

“It’s a place where people can shine, it’s a great avenue for sports at its truest form. There are so many life lessons that really come out of this program it’s hard not to be able to sell this,” he said.

“The impact it had not just on a basketball team but the culture of a school internally was special to see.”

When I was in school, kids with developmental disabilities were segregated into separate classrooms. Students in the general population rarely saw them, much less played or worked with them. They were just those weird, scary kids who got shuffled around when the rest of us were doing regular school. A few of the more effusive kids with special needs were treated as adorable mascots, but there was certainly no concerted effort to integrate them, or to get to actually know them. Things have changed.

Another happy innovation: in my kids’ high school, the Interact club (the high school version of Rotary) has an initiative that encourages students to become friends with kids with special needs, checking in on them throughout the day, cheering them on, helping them get along with other students. I talked to a student from one high school in a different state, and he said that, as the year began, the kids with developmental disabilities were outcasts, and their classmates nervously averted their eyes, or even jeered at them. But once the school made an organized, explicit effort to bring them into the community, the special needs kids gradually became “rock stars,” collecting high fives and swapping nicknames with the other kids as they made their way down the hall. More than that, true friendships formed, which endured outside of the school.

These programs are very much in line with the aims of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a foundation which builds special communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together for their mutual benefit. How beautiful to see secular schools making a similar effort.

Sometimes it feels like the world is getting worse and worse, but this effort to integrate the developmentally disabled is a true, meaningful, and increasingly popular movement in American society. Even as there is a push to eliminate “imperfect” children before they are born, there is a simultaneous push to make contact and to build genuine relationships with people with developmental disabilities, for their benefit and for the benefit of the non-disabled population.

Little green shoots! They’re there if you look for them.

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