We are proud of the ways that W+H Athletics encourages participation from a large percentage of our student body, but other schools provide more dramatic examples of inclusion, inspiring us with reminders of what sport can be.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) has, since 2016, partnered with Special Olympics in an initiative that allows students “with and without disabilities” to compete together in track, basketball and bowling. For example, each Unified Basketball team must have 3 Unified Athletes (students with intellectual or developmental disabilities) and 2 Unified Partners (students without such disabilities) on the floor at all times. In the words of the Special Olympics, the program aims to promote:
social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins peoplewith and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
Special Olympics counts 4,500 elementary, middle or high schools and 73 colleges and universities nationwide offering unified sports programs.
Several large public schools in Middlesex County have eagerly embraced the mission of inclusion through unified teams. Monroe Township HS’s photo galleries demonstrate the breadth of their program:
Monroe has found that practicing two days per week and playing four or five games per season is appropriate for their Unified programs. The teams at Old Bridge HS use a similar schedule. Their Unified Basketball team is 1-1 against Monroe; and also had a chance to play the OBHS Varsity in front of an enthusiastic home crowd. Their basketball team has attracted six Unified Athletes and five Partners.
Maybe the best way to understand how a Unified Sports program contributes to the well-being of both athletes and partners is through this video produced by the Unified program at Rowan University.
Unified Athletes experience all the elements of sport: from concentrating on their form, to celebrating a victory, to the bonds of team membership. As such, we expect them to reap not just social inclusion from their participation, but also all the other life-long benefits of being a high school athlete.
For a school community like Wardlaw+Hartridge, a Unified program may not be possible. Nonetheless, we should never stop looking to expand the depth and breadth of our pool of athletes. In a well-run program, every participant can benefit.