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State Associations Offer Athletic Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

By Jason Haddix on November 21, 2014 hst Print

Young boys and girls spend countless hours playing sports in backyards across the United States. Many of them dream about kicking the game-winning field goal, hitting the winning home run or sinking a three-pointer to win a championship.

Participating in high school sports allows young people the opportunity to achieve those memorable moments, and steps are being taken by many school systems and state associations to give all students that chance. Those changes allow students with intellectual and/or physical disabilities a chance to become student-athletes.
Schools in 12 states are currently offering programs for students with disabilities, including Adapted Sports, Unified Sports and Allied Sports. While the three similar programs have different names, they share a mission – sameness.

The operation of the various programs varies from state to state. They are set up by state associations along with their member schools and are based on the needs of the student-athletes.

Adapted Sports

Adapted sports programs are the most common among state association-supported programs. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) 2011-12 High School Athletics Participation Survey, eight state associations have at least one member school with an adapted sports program.

Students with disabilities play the sport in a similar manner to the sport played by able-bodied participants. Sports that are offered vary from state to state, as do the rules associated with them. Bowling, floor hockey, soccer and softball are among the more common sports. Some examples of rules modification are in soccer where a felt-covered ball may be used, or in softball when athletes use plastic balls and bats.

In 1992, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) made strides in providing opportunities for all students to play high school sports through its partnership with the Minnesota Association for Adapted Athletics, which was the first of its kind in the nation.

Each sport is split into two divisions – a cognitive impairment division and a physical impairment division.

“We feel our program is truly an interscholastic program,” MSHSL Associate Director Rich Matter said. “We have competitive games that are officiated by MSHSL-registered officials. Our coaches have gone through our coaches education program.”

Matter said the MSHSL takes the NFHS rules book for each sport and adapts it to meet the needs of the students. For example, soccer, which is an outdoor sport in high school, is brought inside to allow wheelchair-bound student-athletes and ambulatory athletes to compete on the same field.

“There are exceptions to our typical programs –it is adapted,” Matter said. “I think we do a good job treating it similarly to our other programs.”

Among the other states with Adapted Sports, Georgia and Maryland offer the most extensive programs, according to the 2011-12 NFHS Athletics Participation Survey. The Georgia High School Association has Adapted Sports programs in boys basketball and track, and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association offers Adapted Sports in boys basketball, bowling, soccer, softball and track, and girls bowling, floor hockey, soccer and softball.

Unified Sports

Special Olympics established Unified Sports with a focus on the intellectually disabled. The program pairs a special-needs athlete with a peer without a disability. The mission of the program is to give students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience joy – all while developing friendships.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference forged the first Unified Sports partnership with Special Olympics in 1992. Since then, schools in four other states have become involved with the Unified Sports program – Arizona, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maryland.

The most recent state to become involved in Unified Sports was the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA). AIA Academy Unified Sports Coordinator Scott Brown said the AIA program began in 2011 and is about competition of the moment and inclusion.

“It all has to come back to the Special Olympics athletes being recognized as part of their (school) campus,” he said. “We felt going through athletics to create that was the best way to go. That was at the heart of everything we have done.”

Following the AIA inclusion principle, the Unified Sports events coincide with varsity ones. Brown said an example is a Unified track team that runs its heats during the typical high school track meet. The student-athletes wear the regular school uniform for their sport and also receive a varsity letter.

The AIA offers Unified Sports programs to its member schools in track and field, basketball, flag football, cheerleading and golf. Rules for each sport were derived from the respective NFHS rules books and from rules from Special Olympics.

Brown said that among the 286 AIA member schools, approximately 200 of them have special education programs. He said the program has grown at a rapid pace since its inception – now with 106 schools committed to participating. That growth was one factor that led to girls golf being introduced as a trial sport with two schools. Eighteen schools have now signed up and are set to hit the links during the 2013-14 school year.

“Our first goal was to try and get 30 schools to do a sport,” Brown said. “By the end of the year, to have more than 100 was just amazing.”

Allied Sports

In a sense, Allied Sports programs are a mix between Adapted Sports and Unified Sports. In Allied Sports, student-athletes with intellectual disabilities and ones with physical disabilities compete on the same team.

Baltimore County (Maryland) Public Schools have offered Allied Sports since 1994. Brad Kressman, a resource teacher with the Allied Sports program, said it was designed to offer students with disabilities the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers within the school. Students can choose to participate in soccer, bowling or softball. 

“One of the words used a lot was, ‘sameness,’” Kressman said. “They (program organizers) wanted to have the same type of experience in interscholastic athletics that other students had.” He said the students wear the same uniforms as the other school sports teams and are a part of pep rallies and awards banquets. No formal championships are played, but the teams play in various season-ending events and winners do receive plaques.

Teams have the option to be composed of 50 percent with disabilities and 50 percent without; however, the students without a disability cannot have played on a junior varsity or varsity team in the past.

“When our program began, we wanted to make whatever accommodations necessary to include students with mental and physical disabilities,” Kressman said. “We strove to create an environment where they could have interaction with their non-disabled peers.”

In Maryland, the Howard County and Montgomery County Public School Systems also offer Allied Sports.

Coach Education

A collaborative project among the NFHS, AIA, Special Olympics North America and Special Olympics Arizona resulted in a free online course to help coaches develop the fundamentals needed to successfully lead a Unified Sports team. While the “Coaching Unified Sports®” course relates to Unified Sports and working with intellectually disabled athletes, it has valuable information that translates to the other programs. The course is available at www.nfhslearn.com.