The Wiscasset School Department plans to take its commitment to providing athletic opportunities to students with disabilities one step further in 2016-2017 by instituting a unified sports team, where students with and without disabilities join together to compete against other schools.
The department’s special education program is committed to fostering opportunities and promoting the abilities of students with disabilities, which is one of the reasons the department has embraced Special Olympics programming, Special Education Director Jess Yates said.
The unified sports team would augment the current Special Olympics program and increase the access of students with disabilities to the larger community, Yates said.
As a new athletic director and assistant principal at Wiscasset Middle High School, Nate Stubbert attended a training at the Maine Principals’ Association where he was introduced to the concept of a unified sports team.
Through discussions with Yates and Melissa Burgess, lead teacher in the functional life skills program, funding for a unified sports team was included in the 2016-2017 budget.
If approved, Wiscasset will form a unified basketball team to compete against 32 other school districts in the state with unified sports programs.
The Wiscasset School Department has worked to develop and expand its Special Olympics programming over the past two years, largely thanks to the work of Burgess, Yates said.
Burgess, the primary organizer and developer of Special Olympics programming in the school department, has been a supporter of the Special Olympics for decades. A family member’s participation in the Special Olympics brought her to an opening ceremony about 20 years ago, she said.
“The excitement and pride on his face and the other athletes’ as they participated in their events brought tears to my eyes,” Burgess said. The experience of seeing the athletes participate is “awe-inspiring,” she said.
According to Stubbert, colleagues at the training spoke of a similar experience in the creation of their unified sports programs.
The unified sports program is focused not just on participation, but also on competition. The program operates using a “unified sports player development model” wherein all athletes have a fair amount of playing time and no one player is allowed to dominate a game, according to the Maine Principals’ Association unified sports policies and procedures handbook.
The team is composed of an equal amount of players with and without disabilities. Teammates with higher abilities serve as mentors to assist players with lower abilities. Rules of the game may be modified to better define players’ roles and prevent higher-ability players from taking over, according to the handbook.
For basketball, three students with disabilities and two partners or mentors should be on the floor at all times, with 22 total players on the team. Basketball games will consist of four quarters with eight minutes of running time, six timeouts, and four minutes of overtime, if necessary.
Games follow the 75 percent rule, where mentors or partners are not allowed to score more than 25 percent of the team’s total points. The logistics involved in establishing the unified basketball team and competing against other schools will be worked out as the program develops, Stubbert said.
Wiscasset’s Special Olympics program currently supports student participation in 10 sports: soccer, bowling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, aquatics, motor activities, and track and field.
The current program “is a fantastic opportunity for students to display their athletic abilities and feel proud about what they can do,” said Laura Bingiel, one of Wiscasset’s Special Olympics coaches.
Participation in the program “not only gives them a sense of purpose, but makes their physical education purposeful as well … it is especially endearing to see a normally doubtful student walk with a puffed-out chest and head held high,” Bingiel said.
Several high school Special Olympics participants said the program made them feel happy.
According to Yates, the unified basketball team will not only further empower students with disabilities, but will also increase their access to the community and their peers. “It’s not often (students with disabilities) are the focus of attention for the whole school,” Yates said. “This is going to expand their access. I’m excited to be able to offer this opportunity.”
The satisfaction the school will experience through a unified sports program will be immense, Stubbert said. It is an experience that several administrators spoke of at the Maine Principals’ Association training, he said.
“They say it’s something you can’t really understand until you experience it,” Stubbert said. “I look forward to that experience.”