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Unified Sports Means Opportunity Isn’t Limited by Disability

More students and more crowds at inclusive athletics program 

The benefits of school sports go beyond the scoreboard. Interscholastic athletics builds character and inspires a sense of community and responsibility while giving students an edge in their studies and life skills. 

For City Schools, expanding athletic opportunities and the accompanying social emotional benefits is a priority, especially through Unified Sports. 

In partnership with Special Olympics Maryland, Unified Sports brings together students with and without disabilities in an inclusive setting, offering more athletes the opportunity to benefit from interscholastic athletics. Athletes train and compete together on the same team, taking on other schools’ Unified Sports teams in league play and city and state championships. Depending on the season, anywhere from 120-150 students compete in City Schools’ unified bocce and tennis teams at 11 high schools. After the program switched to virtual competitive fitness during distance learning, the teams are back, in-person in the 2021-2022 school year. 

“In the last few years, we’ve worked to ensure that Unified Sports athletes have the same experience as their peers in other sports,” says Tonisha Montgomery, City Schools Staff Specialist, Interscholastic Athletics. “They have the Under Armor uniforms. They’re honored at their school's sports banquets. These teams and athletes are full, valued members of their athletic departments and school communities.”

Bocce, an Italian bowling game that emphasizes ball placement, is popular in unified sports. The game can accommodate lots of players at once, and even the players with less skill can impact the outcome. 

For Coach Matt Biegel, whose unified bocce team at Reginald F. Lewis High School captured the city indoor championship in February, the growing enthusiasm for Unified Sports at his school is inspiring. “Most of our Unified Sports athletes play on varsity teams as well, which has really helped generate support via word-of-mouth,” says Coach Biegel. “We’re getting more students involved, and the attendance at our matches has grown beyond friends and family to the student body. Unified Sports is helping our athletes build social and leadership skills, and providing opportunities to students who may otherwise not be able to benefit from team sports.”

Through its partnership with Special Olympics Maryland in adopting and growing its Unified Sports offerings, City Schools aligns with the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law. The 2008 legislation ensures students with disabilities are provided with equivalent opportunities in interscholastic sports, physical education, and intramural sports.

“Unified Sports is a place where opportunity is not limited by disability,” says Mike Myers, Baltimore Region Director for Special Olympics Maryland. “Competing in athletics is about incremental improvements —working every day to improve your skills and offer more to the team. That mindset is a strong motivator and shows students with intellectual disabilities that they can accomplish something they’ve struggled with in the past if they show determination.

“And this is a great opportunity for athletes without disabilities to learn from and interact with athletes with disabilities. The next generation of advocates and policymakers can draw on those experiences in creating the ideas and policies to support these inclusive programs in the future.”

The bocce team at Reginald F. Lewis High School will be looking to defend their city championship while becoming an official Special Olympics Champion School. This designation will acknowledge the schools’ efforts on inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and whole school engagement. “It’s a great step for our school community,” says Coach Biegel. “We can ensure that the support system we’ve built in Unified Sports benefits all our students.”

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