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EDITORIAL: Unified sports movement an idea that needs to flourish throughout York County

York Dispatch
  • Unified sports teams include special needs and general population students.
  • There are currently five school districts in York County with unified teams.
  • Unified teams first emerged internationally in the mid-1980s.
  • Unified teams were piloted in Philadelphia a dozen years ago.
Dallastown's Kyiana Baker, right, is guided by Langley Brockway during a relay competition as Unified Sports teams up with Dallastown Area Intermediate School during a pep rally at the school in Springfield Township, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Occasionally, an idea comes along and you say to yourself: “Why didn’t someone think about this years ago?”

Well, when it comes to the unified sports movement, the idea did, in fact, blossom decades ago.

In York County, however, the movement has only recently started to gain a foothold.

Now we can only hope that it will flourish to every school district in the county and the state.

It’s a concept that simply has no downside.

The program: Unified sports teams feature high school students with intellectual disabilities competing alongside their general education peers in a special league. The goal of unified teams is to have a 50-50 split between students with and without intellectual disabilities.

Unified teams first emerged internationally in the mid-1980s and were piloted in Philadelphia a dozen years ago as part of a national outreach. It wasn't until five years ago, however, that there was a larger statewide effort to bring the teams to Pennsylvania's high schools.

York Tech, Red Lion Area and Northern York County school districts were the first locally to come on board with unified teams in the 2017-18 school year, followed by Central York and Dallastown Area districts the following year. West York Area's squad is set to begin its inaugural season this spring.

Growing unified sports movement taking off in York County

The immediate goal is to have a high school competing in all 12 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association districts, which Special Olympics Pennsylvania will accomplish after this year, allowing each county to compete separately.

Unified teams are treated like regular varsity sports — with students even receiving varsity letters at the end of the year and statewide competitions scheduled to align with PIAA competitions in the winter and spring.

Special Olympics Pennsylvania covers uniforms, equipment, coach stipends and inclusion campaign materials for three years, while schools cover transportation costs and raise funds to become self-sustainable and help support other schools starting teams.

Numerous benefits: The benefits of the program are numerous.

The biggest positive is that it brings together special needs students with the general student population. All too often, those two student communities are separated by a wall of misunderstanding and do precious little intermingling. That can leave the special needs students feeling like outcasts in their own schools.

The unified teams help to build bridges between the two student populations, profiting both groups. It bolsters a feeling of inclusion.

Because of the increased communication fostered by unified teams, students are more likely to interact with their special needs peers when they see them roaming the halls in their signature warm-up jackets, said Central York transition coordinator Shelley Warfield.

“They wear those jackets with pride all season," she said.

Boosting the self-esteem of special needs students can only help them excel in the classroom and in life.

The general student population, meanwhile, learns about the challenges facing special needs students. That can only increase empathy and understanding. Some students even develop an interest in special education after joining teams.

Finally, the unified teams can serve as a much-needed reminder about the true essence of sports. It’s competitive, absolutely, but the win-at-all costs sentiment that occasionally plagues our interscholastic athletics is noticeably missing.

"In theory Dallastown is our hated rival," said Red Lion Athletic Director Arnie Fritzius, observing the support both teams had for each other on the field, with members and coaches cheering for the last student to cross the finish line no matter who it was.

Fritzius said he and the other team's coach "kind of looked at what was going on and said, 'This is what sports and athletics should really be,'" he said.

Fritzius is absolutely right.

That’s just one reason, among many, that the unified sports movement is such a welcome addition to the York County scholastic community.

It’s a great idea, and one that needs to be adopted by every district in the county.