Labels define us from birth. Life begins with a series of checkboxes already marked – gender, race, religion. After the three basic labels have been determined, more labels start to stick as we interact with people in society. While labels are meant to serve a helpful purpose, many times there are exclusionary consequences.
Liam Price was labeled early on as having both autism spectrum disorder and Tourette’s syndrome. The characteristics of these two disorders created challenges for Price in the classroom and left him excluded from after-school activities.
“When my anxiety is triggered, certain things automatically happen to me that I can’t control,” Price said. “Quirky behaviors, inappropriate laughter, squeaky noises and tics take over and my focus is crushed. This leads me down a deep hole that I sometimes cannot climb out of without someone’s help.”
These medical labels – autism and Tourette’s – were meant to help guide his parents, teachers and doctors in developing strategies for Price’s growth and development, but the same labels led to isolation and loneliness.
“Before I was enrolled into a homeschool curriculum in fifth grade, I was feeling sick all the time, had a lot of good friends, but was rather left out of certain extracurricular activities that were school-based,” Price said.
Price and his family made the hard decision to begin a homeschool program. This left Price with very little to no outside interactions.
“Being home-schooled did help me focus better on learning, but now I had no network of friends, a lot of time alone and lousy eating and exercise habits,” Price said. “It was a choice of lifestyle that eventually left me very overweight and very lonely.”
The need to find a place in society that embraced both his abilities and disabilities through meaningful inclusion became more and more important to both Price and his parents. Like many parents of children with intellectual disabilities, the Prices found Special Olympics programming in their community to help Liam both socialize and engage in activities.
“My parents started taking me to Special Olympics for swimming and my outlook began to change,” Price said. “Over time, I expanded my activities to include basketball, flag football and even ballroom dancing. Eventually, I began feeling as if I was ready to go back to school.”
While community-based Special Olympics provided the basics for Price to feel ready to re-engage in his school, it was his Center Grove High School (Greenwood, Indiana) Unified track and field team that empowered Price to become a national leader.
“It was freshman year. At first, I felt like a little fish in a massive pond,” Price said. “One day, unexpectedly, everything changed. A teacher saw me running in PE class and he invited me to join the new Unified Track and Field team that he was going to start coaching. At first, I was stunned. I thought to myself, how was I going to contribute to a team sport?”
Interscholastic Unified Sports® brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities to practice and compete together while representing their school. The Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and Special Olympics Indiana (SOIN) have formed a collaborative partnership that began as an IHSAA Student Advisory Committee (SAC) initiative.
“The IHSAA is an outstanding organization and we are extremely proud of the partnership that created Champions Together which began in the 2012-13 school year,” said Mike Hasch, SOIN director of Unified Champion Schools. “It has provided many high school students the opportunity to be servant leaders while changing lives and creating an inclusive community in each school building.”
The IHSAA currently provides opportunities for competition in both Unified track and field and Unified flag football through their Champions Together partnership with SOIN.
The opportunity to participate in interscholastic competition through Unified Sports has not just allowed Price to build lasting friendships with his teammates but enabled him to seek his full potential – beyond his labels.
“School has been the paradise for my future through Unified Sports because I have met many new friends through the freedoms of Unified Sports, built a whole new level of confidence, and I’m making bigger goals for myself,” Price said.
Price’s involvement in his high school is not limited to Unified Sports. He is the manager for the boys basketball team, serves as an officer in his Best Buddies chapter, was voted Homecoming King of his senior class, attended his first school dance and is one of 12 students representing the United States as a Special Olympics Youth Ambassador.
“Liam is an exceptional young man,” Hasch said. “Unified Sports® has changed his life and made it more meaningful. I’m most proud that Liam isn’t afraid to put himself out there and stand up and be heard. He inspires me to be better every day.”
Price has felt a change in himself and noticed a change in his classmates.
“Unified Sports has impacted my life positively in the respect that I’ve gained attention from many friends and they’ve decided to want to be interacting with me in Unified programs more,” Price said. “I am making healthier choices in my lifestyle. I have learned that through Unified Sports, I can build relationships with new people, compete against others and expose myself to the health benefits and recognition it provides.”
As a U.S. Youth Ambassador, Price participated in the annual Special Olympics “Capitol Hill Day” on February 11. He was one of 260 delegates representing 46 states and the District of Columbia who led more than 300 face-to-face meetings with both members of the Senate and House of Representatives advocating for funding and championing inclusion.
“Administrators should add Unified Sports into every school, because school is supposed to help people feel safe and be kind to each other (regardless of various differences),” Price said. “Unified Sports can provide a life-altering path between student relationships with peers and a bigger opportunity for those without disabilities to join other unified groups.”
The future for Price is not without labels, but with a deeper understanding of his worth that will not allow him to be excluded because of those labels.
“I know I have a disability, but I have learned to not let my disabilities define my limitations or who I am,” Price said. “My friends have shown me I have the ability to make impactful contributions to any team.”
Price will be attending the University of Indianapolis this fall with plans to study math and criminal justice. In addition, Price has been invited to be a walk-on athlete on the University of Indianapolis swimming and diving team.
For more information regarding interscholastic Unified Sports®, check out the Resource Guide for Administering Special Olympics Unified Sports® at the High School Interscholastic Level produced in partnership with the NFHS.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.