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The Buffalo News (New York)
NIAGARA FALLS — As track and soccer athletes, respectively, at Niagara Falls High School, Molly Chiarella and Zak Meranto were well aware of the many benefits offered by participation in scholastic sports. Not only does taking part in sports promote a healthy lifestyle, but it also helps build character and camaraderie and often fosters lifetime friendships among competitors. It's something in which student-athletes can take special pride.
Historically and unfortunately, such opportunities have been rare — if not outright inconceivable — for special-needs students, those with intellectual disabilities.
That is all changing, however, thanks to the Unified Sports program of Special Olympics New York (SONY). This year, the Niagara Falls City School District joined a growing number of districts statewide in fielding unified sports teams in both boys' and girls' bowling and basketball, providing athletic opportunities to a historically underserved segment of the population. The experience was richly rewarding, not only for the special-needs students who finally got a chance to don the colors and represent their schools, but also for the general education students who acted as their peer mentors.
"It was a great opportunity for kids who hadn't gotten equal opportunities" in the past, Meranto said. Chiarella said that it was nice to offer special-needs kids a chance to get involved in something "outside of school."
Superintendent Mark Laurrie was a vocal supporter of the program from the very start.
"Our students have participated in Special Olympics for years and will continue to do so," he noted, "but now those students can wear the Wolverine uniform, as they have every right to do, but would not otherwise have had a chance to do." Additionally, he said, unified sports offers "a real-life way to teach non-handicapped students to understand, support and befriend handicapped children in a natural setting — sports."
SONY has teamed with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association to offer "Unified Champion Schools" programming since 2013. To date, 105 high schools across the state participate, with 1,500 special-needs students in grades 9 to 12 playing unified sports and another 1,200 or so gen-ed students serving in "partner" roles, assisting athletes in training and competition. Teams are composed of approximately equal numbers of athletes and partners.
The Unified Sports program strives for "meaningful involvement," ensuring that every player receives a chance to contribute to the success of his or her team through his or her unique skills and qualities, said Nathan Johnson, SONY Unified Sports program director. The goal is for each teammate to play some meaningful role, as determined by his or her individual abilities, and to enjoy "social interaction" along the way that results in a positive experience for all involved.
"The [sports] program is paired with an inclusive youth leadership advocacy piece, so that the benefits easily extend from the court or the gym, into the hallways, classrooms and lunch room," Johnson said. By providing young people with appropriate tools and training and encouraging involvement with special-needs kids, the hope is to create "leaders of a new, positive social movement."
Inclusivity should "benefit all people," Johnson said, "not just those who were previously excluded."
Intellectual differences have often resulted in such students being isolated from the general school population, both socially and in terms of the educational process, organizers noted. Although progress has been made — albeit slowly — rejection and bullying continue to be problems, in part due to a lack of understanding of the problems and difficulties faced by those with special needs.
Unified program organizers viewed sports as the perfect tool for promoting inclusion, and in the process overcoming stereotypes and destroying negative attitudes.
Participation in unified sports results in special-needs students — and by extension their families, Johnson said — feeling "more connected" to the school and the community.
At the same time, their involvement can increase understanding and empathy on the part of gen-ed students, resulting in decreases in the amount of bullying and isolation suffered by the special-needs population.
Participating alongside students faced with intellectual challenges "provides educational benefits to all participants," said Joseph Contento, NFCSD athletic director.
Special-ed teacher and Special Olympics and Unified Sports coach Karyn Morrison welcomed the chance for "her" students to compete alongside traditional student-athletes.
"It is such a positive thing when we can drop our preconceived notions and see ... athletics in its purest form ... with each athlete giving their best effort for the team," she said. There isn't one star in Unified Sports, she said; all participants are stars.
"This program is the purest form of character-building, sportsmanship, team-building and building friendships," said Stan Wojton, a physical education teacher and coach who was also instrumental in bringing Unified Sports to Niagara Falls.
Wojton agreed that participation is beneficial for both the special-needs and gen-ed students.
"It offers [special-needs kids] a deeper understanding of what is out there," he said. Mentoring allows gen-ed kids a chance "to grow even further," he said. They can participate hand-in-hand with students "who maybe aren't as fortunate as they are, and have a big impact on [those kids'] lives."
"It was a fun opportunity for everyone to get involved without being too competitive," said student Alexandra Showers, a tennis and lacrosse player. Showers, Meranto and Chiarella are all members of the NFHS Student-Athlete Athletic Council.
This year, Unified Sports teams had anywhere from three to five practices prior to the start of their seasons, which normally consisted of four matches. Unified teams traveled to different schools, just like traditional sports teams, and competed against unified teams from other schools.
"Karyn [Morrison] really pushed and did a lot of things to get this program off the ground," Wojton said. "It really went very well."
He said that physical education teachers have "used a similar model" in the past to include special-needs students in gym classes and athletic events.
"I'm looking forward to growing and expanding the model to the next level — a school-recognized high school sport," he said.
Morrison, likewise, liked what she saw this year.
"I am thrilled that we as a district, and a community, are opening doors for students with disabilities to be able to compete with their peers in genuine competition," Morrison said. "I am eager to open the eyes of our community on the abilities of my students and to break down walls that have kept students with disabilities from competing for their high schools."
She said she would eventually like to see all sports — varsity, junior varsity and even modified programs — offered at the unified level.
"I am always looking for opportunities for my students to make genuine, positive friends with other students in the school, and sports is a great way to accomplish that goal," she said.
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