For years, Tumaini Mporampora attended the same schools as students with intellectual disabilities.
It wasn’t until her senior year, when her high school began mixing students with disabilities with other students on the basketball team, the dance squad, and in track and field, that some of them became her friends.
“It’s almost like ... they’re in their own little school,” Ms. Mporampora, 18, said of some of her classmates here at Overland High School outside Denver, where the integrated sports teams helped to break down the barriers.
The 2,200-student Overland High is one of a growing number of schools across the country to add Unified Sports teams to its selection of activities for students. Unlike traditional high school athletic teams, Unified Sports teams are designed to immerse students with intellectual disabilities in a facet of school culture that has largely eluded them.
Nationwide, more than 2,000 schools in 42 states have the teams, where the ideal is for about half the athletes on each team to be students with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome, and the rest are partner athletes who play alongside them.
Unified Sports was created by Special Olympics more than 20 years ago, but the program has had a recent surge in popularity, the organization reports, in part because of a broader effort to foster an inclusive culture that extends beyond the gymnasium or the playing field called Project Unify. Since that program was established in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education has devoted more than $30 million to it. About 22,000 students across the country are involved in Unified Sports teams, and Special Olympics estimates that 20 times that number have been touched in some way by the program’s offshoots.
At Overland, now Ms. Mporampora’s alma mater, she and her nine dance-squad teammates were joined by three students with disabilities at several performances during the 2011-12 school year as part of a hasty attempt to launch the movement at her school. The squad simplified some of its dance routines, but she wasn’t worried about whether her new teammates would have the necessary dancing chops.
“What I was the most nervous about was when we would perform in front of our school how the other students would react,” she said.
Her worry was for naught.
“At our first game where we performed together, everybody was screaming for the girls and cheering us on.”
When the Special Olympics first began considering creating Unified Sports, the organization’s founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was skeptical about the idea of combining students with disabilities and their peers, side by side, on sports teams, said Andrea Cahn, who oversees Project Unify for Special Olympics, based in Washington.
The late Ms. Shriver created Special Olympics to put people with intellectual disabilities, often hidden, in the spotlight. She feared athletes with intellectual disabilities would be overrun by their teammates, Ms. Cahn said. She said Ms. Shriver wondered, “Are we not just creating the same thing that Special Olympics was created to overcome?”
Those fears haven’t come to pass.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, the students are thrilled to be playing sports with the peers they look up to and [who] don’t have intellectual disabilities,” Ms. Cahn said.
The program has goals beyond social inclusion, too.
“For students to be successful, they need to be engaged in their school. Friendships are a really critical part of school connectedness, which is why we think what we do is so critical,” she said.
At Overland, Ms. Mporampora went to a birthday party for one of her fellow dance-squad members who has a disability.
“At the end of the day, we’re all teenagers,” she said, reflecting on the year.
“Yes, they do have a disability—that doesn’t stop them from being regular kids. We still have a lot of things in common. They would tell us about their boyfriends,” she said.
Christian Ordonez, a rising junior who is in Overland’s intensive-learning center for students with cognitive disabilities, said because of his school’s Unified Sports track and field team, he picked up a shot put for the first time.
Partner teammates help him work on his throw and are by his side when he practices for the 100-meter dash.
“We practice really hard,” said Mr. Ordonez, 15, of the three days of practice a week. “They’re my best friends.”
Special Olympics wants teammates to become friends, so it discourages partner athletes from taking on the role of coach, too, although a past study of the program found that dynamic did occur on occasion for some teams. Partner athletes are expected to be what their title implies: partners.
Official Unified coaching requires finesse, Ms. Cahn said.
“It’s not about ‘letting’ [students with disabilities] take the ball, but also not about letting other athletes take over the game,” Ms. Cahn said. “It’s a delicate balance.”
That can be an about-face for coaches used to deciding team rosters and plays based solely on athletic prowess, athletes’ size, and their aggression.
“In a high school system, you have extremely experienced coaches. They’ve never worked on meaningful involvement and acceptance for all. You cut people based on their ability to perform in that sport,” said Tim Martin, the president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics Arizona, in Phoenix.
In his state, the athletic association now requires all coaches to be trained in working with Unified Sports teams—in addition to being certified teachers and meeting other basics. To that end, his state is working on training videos for coaches that will be available free online for the rest of the country.
Participating coaches throughout the country learn Unified Sports’ unique rules: Most of the sports require less play time than a typical game might on the court or field, for example. Athletes who play on school-based teams wear the same uniforms as traditional school teams. They can letter in the sport. Teams move on to regional, state, and national championship games. And schools are encouraged to schedule games so they attract the kind of audience another sports team might enjoy, such as by sandwiching a Unified Sports basketball game between Friday night junior varsity and varsity games.
“We’re not allowing it to become a little activity over here on the side,” said Mindy Watrous, the chief executive officer of Special Olympics Colorado.
And for many students with disabilities for whom a side effect is a greater risk of obesity than for others their age, the activity helps combat a sedentary lifestyle and offers practice on fine- and gross-motor skills.
There’s one other critical skill the program teaches, Mr. Martin said.
“One thing we knew for sure is a goal in almost all educational systems and curriculums is [teaching] empathy,” he said. “We have, with Project Unify, the only program that bottles how to treat people who are different.”
Beyond the Gym
Whatever transformation happened at Overland, Assistant Principal Jon Hoerl has no illusions about his students being nicer than or different from students at any other school. Mr. Hoerl worked at another Denver-area high school before joining Overland. There, his wife Marcia Hoerl established a Unified cheerleading squad.
“High school is still high school: People can be mean,” he said.
When Ms. Hoerl unveiled the spirit squad to a crowd of some 6,000 people, Mr. Hoerl recalled thinking, “This is going to be really good—or really bad.” The next week, he saw students with disabilities on the squad get high-fives in the hallways from classmates, simple interactions that hadn’t happened before.
So he had to give little thought to bringing the Unified Sports concept to his new job, though he gives students at the high school the credit for making the program successful.
“It’s not like anyone is being forced to do this,” affirmed Mohammed Bouayad, 16, who will be an Overland junior in the fall and has played on Unified Sports basketball teams.
Lane Brazeel, a recent Overland graduate who was on the dance squad with Ms. Mporampora, said the program inspired the school to work on a campaign to make the “R-word”—retard—taboo. There were plans for posters and T-shirts, Ms. Brazeel said.
“It’s not just about Unified Sports,” she said. “It’s about changing old habits.”