On Monday, Nov. 30, the course of high school sports and the field of intellectual disabilities was changed for the good. In a landmark decision many years in the making, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), Special Olympics Northern California and Southern California along with the California Department of Education announced a partnership to establish an inclusive culture that promotes participation opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities!
This official partnership elevates the life-changing power of sports for students of all abilities to the state level and includes Unified Sports, which pairs students with and without disabilities on the same school team. In addition to offering more athletic opportunities to an increased number of students, this partnership makes an indelible mark on California school culture as it promotes respect for all students.
Why is this so important for students of all abilities?
To have CIF and the California Department of Education recognize the incredible power of students of all abilities having the opportunities to play sports is quite literally game changing. This opens doors for students with disabilities to play sports just like their peers in general education. More importantly, it creates a level playing field for all students, regardless of their abilities. It brings together two groups of students – those with and without disabilities – to be teammates. When schools have Unified Sports on their campus, there is less bullying and more friendships created.
What will this new partnership look like at the high school level?
Individual high schools can choose to start a Unified Sports program in a variety of ways, choosing one that works for the own school and current athletics program. Schools should look to engage resources on their campus that include athletics, sports teams, special education, clubs or other student groups. Schools should contact their appropriate Special Olympics chapter office and also look to the California Interscholastic Federation and their website for “How to start and Inclusive Sports Program” for information and resources to get started (Click here to see!). The main thing is to start small and it will grow!
How did this partnership come about?
For the past few years Special Olympics has been working with the California Interscholastic Federation with pilot Unified Sports leagues to enhance the already amazing experience for students to represent their high school as an athlete. Often times there are barriers to entry for other students on campus that are not part of the traditional sports programs that were being offered. These pilot programs have been executed with amazing results. Students, teachers, administrators and parents all see the value and opportunities that inclusive Unified Sports offer.
Since the early 2000s, Special Olympics Northern California and Southern California have been providing athletic opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities through the Schools Partnership Program. The Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership Program brings sports to K-12 public schools. Multiple schools and school districts across California have been introducing Unified Sports with well-deserved fanfare and incredible success with Liberty Union High School District starting our very first one with guidance of Athletic Director Steve Amaro. This new partnership with CIF and CDE increases the positive impact that Unified Sports makes.
It is estimated that over 10 percent of the students in California schools have a documented disability. The inclusion of athletic programs for students with disabilities increases opportunities and encourages access to the academic benefits through athletic participation. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports team, teaching teamwork and the value of inclusion for all participants.
What They’re Saying
“As a former coach, I am so pleased about the new partnership. It will help schools ensure that students with intellectual, developmental, physical and other types of disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from all the things they can learn by participating in sports – teamwork, discipline, focus, persistence, practice, healthy living and so many other life lessons.” – State Superintendent Tom Torlakson
“CIF’s visionary decision to partner with both Special Olympics Northern and Southern California in order to provide students with greater access to the Unified Sports program enables us to move closer to a world where the intellectually disabled are accepted by society as a whole and inclusion is commonplace.” – Special Olympics Northern California President & CEO David Solo
“Unified programs will offer new and expanded opportunities on our high school campuses. Working with California Special Olympics and California Department of Education, CIF will provide strategies and best practices for integrating and growing unified sports programs at our 1,576 member schools.” – CIF Executive Direction Roger L. Blake.