The Special Olympics' Unified Sports movement is growing in Montgomery County as track coaches prepare to attend an upcoming training session at Upper Merion Area High School.
"The whole basis of the idea is really to show that people with disabilities are the same and should be treated equally as everyone else," said Kelsey Foster, Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Eastern Unified Champions school manager.
Foster said the program began in the 1990s, and the organization partnered with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), the governing body of the state's high school sports programs, to set up sports teams for students to increase inclusion.
“When it comes to our population, the fear people have is they never learned how to properly interact with them, and the basis is always that you treat everyone the same, but if you don’t have that initial interaction, it can be a little daunting,” she said. “So what’s so great about Unified Sports is we’re kind of breaking down that barrier at the very basic level, doing something we can all understand: sports.”
Foster said Montgomery County has Unified Sports teams in 14 schools, and more than 200 across the state.
She said that students can join two teams: Unified Bocce and Unified Track. She added there are 11 schools across the region this year that have Unified Track teams.
“At Upper Merion we’re very lucky because it’s a really excellent school,” she said. “They currently have Unified Bocce, so they’re adding track this year and they really just rocked it out with Unified Bocce, which is why we’re adding a second sport there.”
Foster said the Special Olympics funds each team. The schools are required to provide students with transportation to meets as well as adequate uniforms, tracks and training facilities. She added that coaches also need to complete proper training.
Students will need a medical form prior to registration for the team.
There are typically between 12 and 40 students on each team, according to Foster, who said half the students are “Special Olympics participants,” and the other half are “general education students.”
Schools interested in adding a team are encouraged to reach out to Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
“But it is treated as an interscholastic unified sport, so it has a lot of requirements because we do take it seriously,” Foster said. “It is competitive. Schools just need to treat it like that.”
The Unified Track season will start in March. Foster said the team will practice for two months, and team members are required to attend at least two practices per week.
Students will have the opportunity to participate in a number of track and field events.
The running events consist of 100-, 400- and 800-meter races. Teams also have members in the 4x100 and the 4x400 relays.
The field categories for Unified Track are the shot put, mini javelin and the running long jump, according to Foster.
She said each school will participate in three meets prior to the postseason competition. All of the participating area schools will attend the countywide competition in May at Souderton Area High School.
The winner will advance to the IUS the IUS Track and Field Championship during the PIAA Track and Field Championships in May at Shippensburg University, according to Special Olympics Pennsylvania's website.
Foster said the Unified Sports initiative is a great way for students to get to know each other better.
“'Friends on and off the field' --that’s one of our mottos,” Foster said.
Dan Gemmill, an Upper Merion High School parent and a member of the Montgomery County Special Olympics Management Board, agreed.
His 14-year-old son Cole has Down syndrome and has been participating in Unified Track since he was 5 years old.
“I think the kids at Upper Merion do a really good job of … making sure that these kids feel comfortable in their environments, and when they go some place maybe they’re not quite sure of what's going on, or they don’t feel 100 percent comfortable, these kids just jump right in,” Gemmill said. “It's a really nice situation.”
Gemmill said he’s part of a parent group as there were 13 special needs students who started at the high school. He praised several of the school’s programs including Best Buddies and Unified Sports.
“I think Upper Merion does a very good job with their special needs community getting them involved with different things,” he said.
Gemmill added he’s looking forward to the training session for the upcoming Unified Track season on Feb. 19 at the high school in King of Prussia.
Foster said that coaches from eight schools in Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties starting the Unified Track program will get a better sense of the different events. Coaches will also learn different ways to accommodate team members.
“Whatever you need to adapt in terms of if they’re in a wheelchair, if maybe they have a little bit of a limp, or something with their hands that they have kind of a hard time grasping the javelin or any of our field events,” she said.
Foster and Gemmill agreed the session is another opportunity for coaches to collaborate.
“I will say our existing schools are really good about that, too,” Foster said. “They’re always willing to help out with our new schools if they ever have any questions or anything like that.”