EDEN – Students with and without intellectual disabilities compete alongside each other across the state, thanks to programs like Interscholastic Unified Sports, run by Special Olympics Maryland.
The program allows students with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports, promotes non-traditional friendships and helps deconstruct stereotypes.
“Interscholastic Unified Sports provides an opportunity for … an inclusive environment where individuals with disabilities participate on a team with students who don’t have disabilities,” Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland said.
A 2008 law required that Maryland public schools provide equal athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. There were byproducts from the law, aside from equal rights and a greater opportunity for healthy lifestyles.
“It’s given the opportunity to kids who potentially wouldn’t interact during the day and has given them an activity they can do together,” said Stosh Schtierman, athletic director liaison for Wicomico County.
When asked about Unified Sports, Special Olympics athlete Lincoln Busek eagerly expressed his gratitude.
“I love it, it’s a great opportunity for me, and I like working out,” said Busek, 20, a Wicomico High School senior. The athlete spoke between events at the statewide strength and conditioning competition near Salisbury.
Busek also said that all of his friends came from Unified Sports, but added that his relationships with them extend beyond the program.
Included among those friends are “unified partners,” athletes without intellectual disabilities.
“[Special Olympics athletes] have been my best friends for a few years now,” said Alexandra Rowe, one such partner, 18, a senior at Annapolis High School.
Unified Sports is offered in 21 of the 24 school systems across the state for at least one season, though all have programs contingent with the law.
The sports that Special Olympics Maryland offers are tennis in the fall, bocce ball and strength and conditioning in the winter, and bocce ball and track and field in the spring.
Unlike Unified Sports, many of the local school systems alternative programs do not allow both intellectually disabled and non-disabled students to compete together or simultaneously participate as a varsity or junior varsity athlete.
“[Athletes] compete in an environment similar to varsity sports,” Schmutz said.
The public schools in Montgomery and St. Mary’s Counties offer varsity sports for disabled and non-disabled athletes, independent of Special Olympics Maryland.
Programs without the integrated athletes may be losing participation by non-disabled athletes.
Jock Simon, 18, a senior at Parkside High School, for example, originally joined Unified Sports to supplement his role as a varsity football player.
“Me and a couple of friends decided to do it,” Simon said. “We did it to work on our lifting.”
But since joining, Simon has seen benefits beyond his athleticism.
“It’s also good to hang out with the kids and be like a positive role model,” Simon said. “I’ve made a lot of connections.”
In addition to forging new friendships, the program has also helped remove stereotypes of intellectually disabled individuals.
“It’s really opened my eyes to just people in general and talking to people with disabilities,” Rowe said.
Schtierman said: “It’s broken down walls.”
The new friendships and weakened stereotypes have all led to greater community development.
“Ultimately, [Unified Sports] spreads throughout the school, making the community better and more cognizant of who the individuals with intellectual disabilities are, so they’re welcomed to the school,” Schmutz said.
Rick Sneade, a Unified Sports coach at Calvert High School added: “When [disabled athletes] walk down to school now, they’re an equal with the rest of the community.”
Despite the involvement of administrators and volunteers, Schmutz sees one main group as the cornerstone of the program.
“The youth really are taking a leadership role and are making the world for individuals with intellectual disabilities a better place,” Schmutz said.