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Disabled and non-disabled students playing together on NJ sports teams

Unified track & field at Old Bridge High School
Unified track & field, Old Bridge High School (Karen Lewicki)

Some special education students can outrun students without a disability, or sink baskets at a greater rate. They just haven’t always had the chance to compete.

As part of a push in New Jersey to offer students with disabilities a fair opportunity to participate in athletics, more than 100 schools in the state are involved with the Unified Sports program through Special Olympics. Non-disabled and disabled students compete together as one team, promoting a society that accepts and includes all people.

How these teams compete and operate varies from school to school. Some will meet as clubs on a weekly basis. Others will have special days or nights set aside for unified games.

And this school year, for the first time, the program has entered the field of interscholastic play. About two dozen schools have competed or are competing in cross-school games made possible by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and Special Olympics New Jersey.

“In the past many of these students would have been on their school’s interscholastic athletic teams and they would have never stepped on the court, field or track during an interscholastic competition with another school,” said Al Stumpf, an assistant director with NJSIAA. “All of these students would have left high school without having the experience of taking part in a true, meaningful athletic experience.”

The unified team at Old Bridge High School recently wrapped up its two-and-a-half month track and field season, during which it competed against unified teams in Edison, South Brunswick and South Plainfield.

OBHS unified coach Karen Lewicki said students on these teams, just as the varsity and junior varsity teams, need to obtain parental permission, go through a physical and maintain an academic standard in order to participate.

“We’re finding potential in our special needs athletes that we never knew were there until we started tapping into their abilities,” Lewicki told New Jersey 101.5.

When games and meets are underway, the key to success is offering an equal playing field. The only races they run, for example, are relays — typically featuring two disabled students and two non-disabled students from each school. In shot put, the score of a school’s special needs student would be paired with the score of a general education student.

“They become one unit,” Lewicki said. “Relationships build and bonds build and break the barriers.”

The experience is gratifying not only for the special education students, but for the non-disabled participants as well, Lewicki said.

“Any child, any student being on a sports team feels like they’re offering something to the school,” she said.

The school hopes to introduce interscholastic basketball play for the 2017-2018 school year.

Through the Play Unified School Partnership, schools (Pre-k through grade 12) are eligible to receive grants, training, equipment and technical assistance to support their goals.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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