In our busy lives, we are surrounded by differences in culture, gender, religion, ethnicity, disabilities and other differences to lead us to think that we are more different than alike. Most parents want their children to be tolerant and accepting of others, and to feel comfortable and flexible interacting with people. What does it take to help our children to not be afraid, to step outside their comfort zone and understand, learn, respect and appreciate others?
Special Olympics is known worldwide as a sports organization for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID), but many people may not be aware it is also the largest public health program in the world serving people with ID. As a partner of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and the Together Counts™ program, we know the importance of community. Project Unify is a Special Olympics program that joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, it gives children and young adults the chance to know one another. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. Having sport in common is just one more way that preconceptions and false ideas are swept away and tolerance and acceptance grows.
Young people with disabilities don’t often get a chance to play on their school sports teams, but more and more U.S. states are adopting the unified sports approach that Special Olympics pioneered. For almost 20 years, Special Olympics has offered sport teams that blend people with and without intellectual disabilities, and that is a model where students of all abilities develop exceptional athletic skills while forming friendships, fostering respect for each other, and becoming leaders on and off the court or field.
- Unified Sports is a model that encourages sports and fun, and which also gets people together to learn more about each other. Chances are there’s a team in your community that you or your children could join. As of 2014 there were more than 850,000 individuals with and without ID participating in Unified Sports across the globe. That number is expected to eclipse 1 million after the 2015 census is completed. 70,000 youth leadership opportunities are currently experienced through Unified Champion Schools.
- On average, 70% of Unified Schools (Pre-K through 12) are engaging in Unified Sports, (75% of Middle Schools and 81% of High Schools)
Fitness, peer connections, socializing, structure, learning from success and failures, these are by products of participation in inclusive sports, whether it be at school, in the community or in your own backyard. Sports participation offer us the joy of using our physical body, connecting with others and being part of a team. Unified Sports amplifies the chance for children and young adults to learn and play with others who may be different from ourselves. Are your children enrolled in schools that offer Unified Sports? To find out how to help your child’s school get started if they don’t already offer inclusive sports, contact your local Special Olympics Program.
Mary Pittaway is a Global Clinical Advisor with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Health Promotion Programs. Mary, a Registered Dietitian and public health nutritionist strives to enhance a spirit of tolerance and acceptance and acceptance of others. For additional information go to Special Olympics Unified Sports Program,
For more fun ways to get healthy and active take a look at these other articles from Together Counts!