On January 25, 2013, the United States Department of Education (DOE) released new guidance to schools and school systems throughout the nation that receive federal aid about the requirements of providing quality sports opportunities for students with disabilities.
While the guidance does not make new law, it does identify the responsibilities that schools and school systems have under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This guidance aims not just to protect rights but to promote unity and has instantly given inclusive sports more relevancy and focus in schools. The guidance also suggests that all students, not just those who join a sports team, should be exposed to the health, fitness, and nutrition benefits of physical activity.
As a statewide sports organization already serving both disabled and non-disabled students through our Unified Sports ® and Project UNIFY programs, SOPA stands ready to serve as a partner and a solution provider. The specific call out to “allied” or “unified” sports is especially encouraging, as this is already part of what Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA) offers. Special Olympics Unified Sports ®, an inclusive sports program that combines approximately equal numbers of individuals with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is a significantly growing program that has directly resulted in building more inclusive school climates.
Project UNIFY® is also an obvious solution to this directive. Project UNIFY, a Special Olympics program supported by Department of Education funding, uses inclusive sports activities (Unified Sports) along with youth leadership and activation activities to provide all students with opportunities for participation and acceptance. SOPA’s Philadelphia program, in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, has already made great strides in providing platforms through Project UNIFY® for Philadelphia youth to understand and value their peers with intellectual disabilities and empower and activate them to create opportunities for sport, friendship and advocacy.
Based upon our own experience here in PA as well as the successes of Special Olympics programs in other states, SOPA has a variety of tools, models, training and options that can help schools get their equitable sports programming up and running. To obtain additional information or inquire about how Special Olympics might partner with your school or district, please contact Clare Walsh Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.