Updated: Sep 4, 2022
Sports and friendly competition have a special ability to boost morale and bring a sense of community.
According to the official website of the Special Olympics, “Unified Sports is an integral part of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, which was founded in 2008.”
the Chandler school district.
Unified Program Director Jessica Peacock currently oversees 14 high schools and 6 junior high schools.
“In 2011 a representative from Special Olympics Arizona, Scott Brown, approached our district with the idea of unified sports in schools,” Peacock said. “He told us we could change/manipulate the program in any way we wanted to ensure that it was successful within the school system.”
According to the Special Olympics Arizona website, the goal of Unified Sports is to “create an inclusive program that combines individuals with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and individuals without intellectual disabilities (partners) on sports teams for training competition.”
Chandler promotes student involvement on the weekly edition of the Chandler High Wolf Bytes as a great way to get 30-plus hours of community service. Each participant who completes the season will receive a Varsity Unified Letter.
The program includes cheer, flag football, soccer, track and field, and basketball. It provides students with many opportunities to get involved and have fun in athletic competition.
“The athletic ability level of the athletes (individuals with disabilities) and partners (individuals without disabilities) does not determine whether or not they can participate on a team; anyone who signs up participates,” Peacock said.
The coaches and active members do everything in their power to make the students feel included and have a fun time while competing.
“At the end of each season, coaches meet to discuss rules and make changes to ensure all participants are able to participate meaningfully,” Peacock said.
To maintain a “culture of acceptance and inclusion” outside of the playing surface, the high school introduced Chandler Buddies. The school matches students with “intellectual or developmental disabilities” with a peer to create friendships by using questionnaires and “matching parties.”
The buddies participate in multiple organized activities which help “develop the social skills needed to build social confidence and meaningful friendships.”
It brings the community closer and puts a smile on everybody’s face. Chandler Principal Michael Franklin loves what the program is doing and enjoys spectating the events.
“[It is] no different than any other sport on campus. I get to enjoy being a proud supporting spectator of our kids as they compete and participate in the sport they love,” Franklin said.
Franklin especially enjoys talking to the kids before each game he attends. As he puts it, the excitement levels, and goals the students have for the game are his favorite part.
“Seeing them so proud of themselves when they score is awesome,” he added.
What makes Unified Sport so great is that everyone benefits from it.
“The impact is huge. It shows all our kids anything is possible,” he said. “Especially when our kids are cheered on by other students during assemblies.”
“My favorite thing about unified sports is the culture of inclusion it brings to the high school experience,” Peacock said. “All students have a place and can represent their schools regardless of their ability levels.”
Chandler Unified Sports is actively working on recruiting new schools and increasing the play pool.
“Schools who would like to start unified sports programs and are interested in our design can contact me and I will be delighted to walk them through the process,” Peacock said.