6 Rules for Engaging Students With Intellectual Disabilities in Sports

Integrated sports and physical education programs are being stepped up as schools work to get middle schoolers back into sports due to the pandemic.

These programs combine roughly equal numbers of students with intellectual disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome, into regular and competitive teams. Supporters of the program, which now operates in about 8,000 schools in 20 states, say it can help make schools more accessible and allow students who want to learn athletic skills to participate without the pressure of competition.

“The ultimate goal we have is for students to play together, work together, know that everyone is valuable, and that regardless of ability level or skill level, you can be part of a team, part of a group, part of a group. About the fabric of the school,” said Andrea Kahn, vice president of Special Olympics United Champion Schools of North America.

Basketball and track and field have been the most popular for unified teams, while districts have organized local competitions in many sports and now eSports. Students help each other develop skills and teams, and students understand the rules and can participate in more formal competitions with other teams.

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“It gives kids an opportunity to really showcase their abilities, not their disabilities,” says Audra DiBacco, social worker and head basketball coach at Columbia High School in the East Greenbush Center School District in New York. “Not just basketball, but the feeling of being able to interact with others like other student-athletes do, making friends, and being proud to wear your jersey at school.”

Evaluations of the programs over the past 15 years show that participating students have higher graduation rates and less bullying than those at schools without the program, Kahn said.

Most schools with integrated programs have at least one coach with special education. DiBacco said the unified teams at his school were a collaboration between the special education and athletic departments. Educators and coaches worked together to teach game rules and practical skills in an accessible way, including videos to help students practice at home.

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Nate Wark, principal of Pembroke Junior High School in New York, said the integrated program helped create a long-term interest in promoting accessibility. “I had a few students who were partners [general education students on the unified team] They didn’t know what they wanted to do for a career. “Once they’ve had that experience, they’ve gained a little bit of insight, and I’ve had a couple who went to school to become special education teachers after graduation.”

Special Olympics recommends six rules to ensure “meaningful participation” in integrated programs.

  • Every student can play.
  • Every student plays an important role in every game; if the students are not currently playing, they should encourage the students who are playing, warm up others, etc.
  • Every student should be given opportunities to practice, develop and demonstrate their skills.
  • All students and coaches ensure that the game is played safely.
  • Players and coaches are kind to their teammates and other teammates.
  • All players train together as a team; There is no separate training for specific players.
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Brian Quinn, director of Special Olympics International, said integrated sports should be “part of a broader inclusion strategy in schools” where students with disabilities get important opportunities to plan social activities and have a voice in student leadership.

“There has to be whole-school involvement so that the message of inclusion and acceptance reaches all students and it really permeates the school and the school climate,” Quinn said.

For example, DiBacco said his team plays basketball games against other schools, but students who aren’t ready or uncomfortable can play less competitive games during recess.



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