Strategies for Implementing a Unified Sports Program at a Large, Rural University

Special Olympics Unified Sports is an inclusive program that has about the same number of athletes (people with intellectual disabilities) as partners (people without intellectual disabilities). It is recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for all children to aim for 30-60 minutes of physical activity on most days with 15-20 minutes of that being continuous moderate to vigorous activity. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) show lower levels of cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, and higher levels of obesity compared to their neurotypical peers (Frey et al., 2008). Unified sports are a great way to increase physical activity, enhance social skills, and bridge an understanding between people with and without IDD.

There are some important aspects to consider to ensure a successful unified sports program. First, athletes need to be given the option to choose their level of participation in the program. Athletes may feel overwhelmed to compete at first but showing up and watching peers may spark an interest in competing. The location of the program must be identified well before the unified season. Accessibility issues may exist and identifying this early will allow for a smooth transition in terms of transportation. Utilizing bus routes and community transportation services is a great practice for people with IDD as they may rely heavily on community transportation throughout their life. This lifelong skill is transferable to the workplace as well. Giving yourself and your team more time than expected for travel is imperative because technical issues are inevitable. Finally, celebrate getting physical activity and educate on the benefits of physical fitness both physically and mentally. I have seen students at WSU ROAR seek out opportunities to get some sort of movement, whether that is going to the student REC center or going on a walk to clear their heads. Implementing these practices starting in elementary school will create a healthier future for people with IDD.