Traditionally, schools offer a wide variety of student clubs, athletic teams, a marching show band, a theatre program and countless other opportunities for the students who attend. However, in seeking ways to address inclusion for those with special needs, Unified Sports programs bridge a gap in many school athletics and activities programs.
Through the adoption of Unified Sports at Pittsburg (California) High School, the campus has been transformed into a more inclusive community.
It started with a program called, “Pitt Unify.” In the “Pitt Unify” club, we partner students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team to promote social inclusion through sports training and competition experiences. This program has been significant because it has transformed our school community by fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for students with intellectual disabilities. Through this program, Unified athletes and their partners have worked together to empower an evolution in school culture.
One of the most popular sports has been Unified bowling with 20 special-needs students wanting to participate on the team. Amazingly, in just four years our Unified Sports program now includes four sports (soccer, bowling, basketball and track) plus a cheer team for a total of 127 total participants. (See Table 1.)
The main goals when we started our Unified Sports program were: 1) to create a positive public attitude toward a population that is often forgotten or overlooked; 2) to promote athletic leadership within the student body; 3) to empower the students with special needs; and 4) to change negative attitudes and misperceptions about people with intellectual disabilities.
We believed that Unified Sports would provide an opportunity for students with special needs to be involved with a program that placed an emphasis on social inclusion and meaningful involvement with all students at Pittsburg High School. We wanted the program to provide opportunities for our Unified athletes to learn about training techniques, rules and strategies of different sports games from their Unified partners.
Our Unified Sports program has positively affected the students, and our school has become more socially inclusive. All participants have more self-confidence, they make eye contact and talk to other students in the hallways, they engage in lunchtime activities and school rallies, and socialize with other students both in the classroom and while playing on a sports team.
A specific example of the positive effects of Unified Sports occurred during the 2016-17 school year when two of the Pitt Unify student-athletes were urged by their fellow classmates to run for what is the equivalent of Homecoming King and Queen, but affectionately called “Ms. Pirateer” and “Mr. Uglyman” at Pittsburg High School. Two Pitt Unify athletes were nominated by the Pitt Unify club to run, and both students won! This gave both students confidence in themselves and showed a great deal of acceptance by their peers.
Starting our bowling team was an easy task. First, we asked if there was interest with the special-needs students. When we realized the popularity of bowling, we arranged for our local bowling alley to host our school’s practices and matches. We received a great discount on bowling fees, and shoe rental charges were waived. Since the bowling alley was not busy with league play after school, it welcomed the additional customers. We also encouraged our students to come back with their friends or family to practice on their own as a way to work in conjunction with the bowling alley.
Getting the general education students involved was another easy task. Students were interested in bowling on the Unified team since now they could try out for a school sports team – an opportunity they had not previously experienced. All of the students were new to bowling, so everyone was on an even playing field and had to learn about the etiquette, rules and scoring together. It was truly a bonding experience for all of the students.
Our athletic department provides Pitt Unify athletes with the same school blocks, emblems and certificates as all other student- athletes who participate in a sport at Pittsburg High School.
Our school board has played a vital role in the program’s success with initial funding of uniforms, equipment, supplies and transportation prior to an athletic budget. The board has shown a continued commitment to our Unified Sports program by adding an additional stipend for an assistant coach because of the growth in participation. The board also included Unified Sports in the athletic budget to pay for uniforms, equipment and transportation for the program. (Table 2)
Additionally, board members and district office personnel attend many of the games and have participated with the Pitt Unify athletes and their partners during Unified bowling.
A Unified Sports program can be successful and sustainable if, like Pittsburg High School, a school has a supportive school board and district office, financial support to operate the program and provide for their needs, a coach(s) who is committed to ensuring equity and access for all students, and an athletic department that supports the program and is committed to its success.
Maureen Mattson teaches physical education and coaches all Unified Sports teams at Pittsburg (California) High School. Prior to coaching Unified Sports, Mattson coached varsity basketball for 26 years.