Coach Adam Russell (in black) leads a group cheer to end a recent practice at Calgary’s Bishop McNally High School. The school is one of four in Alberta that are piloting a new program — Special Olympics Unified Sports — which brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team.
Gentle encouragement abounds in the gym at Calgary’s Bishop McNally High School during a recent lunch break as students clad in purple T-shirts practise layups.
For Adam Russell, athletic director at McNally, this basketball team is unlike any other he has coached. The athletes are part of Special Olympics Unified Sports, a program that brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team.
The popular American program, launched in 1989, is making its Canadian debut in Alberta, thanks to a partnership between the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA) and Special Olympics Alberta.
When Russell learned the program was being piloted in Alberta this year, he immediately saw the potential for Bishop McNally students with intellectual disabilities.
“These students don’t have extracurricular sports and aren’t very involved in the school, so this is a way to help them feel more involved,” Russell said.
Another Calgary school, Lester B. Pearson High School, is also participating, as well as two high schools in Edmonton: L.Y. Cairns and W.P. Wagner.
Johnny Byrne, president and CEO of Special Olympics Alberta, calls Unified Sports an empowering program that benefits many.
“You put people out on the playing field and it’s a great equalizer. You just go out and play,” he said. “Sport is a great vehicle for social inclusion.”
At Bishop McNally, basketball practices have been held over the lunch break on Mondays and Wednesdays since early February.
About 8 to 10 students from the school’s education support (ES) classes and two teachers regularly participate, as well as students who play on the school’s senior boys’ and senior girls’ basketball teams. In Unified Sports lingo, these students are called “partners” and are there to serve as mentors to their peers.
During a practice on March 9, high-fives were plentiful. The partners and athletes — students who may otherwise not ever have interacted — worked together as Russell led drills and relays.
“Nothing brings out a positive spirit like sports,” said ES teacher Chunqing Wang. “Look at their smiles.”
Dan Batherson, another ES teacher, said Unified Sports has been fabulous so far.
“From my experience, these students don’t get very involved in regular sports programs. This gives them an opportunity to get involved,” he said.
Liana Garcia takes a pass from Julianne Conway with the encouragement of education support teacher Chunqing Wang during a recent practice at Bishop McNally High School in Calgary.
Want to join?
Shanna Kurylo, Unified Sports program co-ordinator for the ASAA, hopes more Alberta schools will join the nascent program.
“Right now it’s a pilot program, so we’re getting a lot of feedback from schools and coaches about how it went for them and how we can grow and shape the program so that it works for Alberta,” she said.
The biggest hurdle so far has been finding available gym time in schools. The payoffs, however, have been plentiful. Kurylo said everyone involved benefits from the physical activity, while partner students have opportunities for leadership, and students with intellectual disabilities experience increased confidence.
John Paton, executive director of the ASAA, said Unified Sports is “a really good fit to help improve the culture of acceptance in schools.”
Morgan Fraser, athletic director at Lester B. Pearson High School, had held five basketball practices for Unified Sports by early March and was already seeing rewards.
“Students are stopping by my office and talking to me. They’re excited to play basketball and be involved,” he said. “It’s letting me get to know a completely different student population than what I would work with on a regular basis.”
He’s seen benefits for himself, too.
“I’m trying to learn how to teach the game of basketball in a completely different way than ever before,” he said.
Shawn Irwin is department head of physical education, athletics and student activities at L.Y. Cairns School, an Edmonton school for students with cognitive delays. He’s previously organized sports teams to play in the Metro Edmonton High School Athletic Association, but jumped at the recent opportunity to participate in Unified Sports, a program that’s a better fit for L.Y. Cairns’ students, he said.
Practices have not yet begun, but about 20 students have already signed up to play. No one will be turned away, Irwin said. Students from L.Y. Cairns will be partnered with students from nearby Harry Ainlay High School.
Irwin has already seen students at L.Y. Cairns benefit from playing sports and expects this program to be no different.
“Athletics raises their self-esteem and self-confidence. [Students] learn about resiliency, and those skills they learn transfer,” he said.
The goal for all teams is to work toward playing games. To that end, Kurylo is planning Unified Sports basketball jamborees this spring, one at the University of Calgary and one at Edmonton’s Saville Sports Centre.
The schools currently adopting the Unified Sports program will participate, and other area schools will also be invited.
“Once people experience [Unified Sports], it seems to be something they want to get involved in,” Kurylo said.
Byrne, with Special Olympics Alberta, expects the program to grow beyond Alberta, too. People in other provinces are watching Alberta’s lead, he said, waiting to see how Unified Sports unfolds here.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Byrne said. “This will be great for schools and students and people with and without intellectual disabilities.”❚
How did Unified Sports come to Alberta?
Since its launch in 1989, the Special Olympics Unified Sports initiative has grown immensely in the United States.
Johnny Byrne, CEO and president of Special Olympics Alberta, has known about Unified Sports for years from his American counterparts, as has John Paton, executive director of the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA).
Paton became interested in bringing the program to Alberta after hearing in early 2015 from an American colleague who described how well the program was received at his school.
Inspired by what he’d heard, Paton soon met with Byrne, curious to see if he was interested in bringing the program to Alberta. He was, and a partnership began.
“[Special Olympics] had knowledge and understanding of the audience, and we had knowledge and understanding of the school sport system. It’s been a great marriage,” Paton said.
“There’s been a willingness and eagerness on both sides,” Byrne said.
An Alberta Sport Connection Bilateral Grant, valued at $35,000 a year for four years, is helping to fund the program. The ASAA hired Unified Sports program co-ordinator Shanna Kurylo in September 2015, and four schools started offering the program in early 2016.