Special Olympics Florida

Special Olympics Florida celebrates organization milestone in reaching 1.2M participants in Unified Sports

Thanks to ESPN and other key supporters, milestone becomes possible!

Special Olympics Florida is celebrating a significant milestone in Special Olympics’ 50-year history. Thanks to the generous support of ESPN, the Department of Education, Kim Samuel and the Samuel Family Foundation, Lions Club International, and many others, Special Olympics surpassed its goal of registering 1 million Unified Sports participants, by registering 1.2 million participants, including athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and teammates (individuals without intellectual disabilities) in Special Olympics Unified Sports®.

In 2013, ESPN became the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports, and committed to help provide support and resources on the road to Special Olympics’ goal of doubling the number of participants in inclusive sports.  At that time just over 500,000 global participants participated in Unified Sports. Thanks to recent growth and awareness, now over 600,000 Special Olympics athletes and over 650,000 of their teammates have registered to participate in Unified Sports globally.  Special Olympics Florida currently has more than 12,000 participants registered in Unified Sports.

Special Olympics Florida offers 15 Unified Sports teams including basketball, bocce, tennis, soccer, athletics (track and field), volleyball, golf, flag football, cheerleading, softball, bowling, cycling, equestrian, gymnastics, and swimming.  Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team and playing field.  It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

“Exceeding the goal of 1 million Unified participants globally is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Special Olympics Florida President and CEO, Sherry Wheelock. “We have witnessed the transformational power of Unified Sports for our athletes, schools, and communities here in Florida and will continue to grow Unified Sports across the state. Unified Sports is changing hearts and minds about stereotypes and judgements of people with intellectual disabilities through shared participation in sports competitions and relationship building.”

Officially launched in 1989, Special Olympics Unified Sports has gained momentum over the last 27 years due in large part to multiple partners and supporters who have facilitated the growth of the program, such as ESPN, the Department of Education, Kim Samuel and the Samuel Family Foundation, and Lions Club International.  In addition to the support from ESPN and others, Special Olympics Florida would like to thank local partners Publix Super Markets, the Walt Disney World Company, the Florida Department of Education, the Taft Foundation, Wells Fargo & Company, Universal Orlando Foundation, and the United States Tennis Association for their support.

Beau Doherty, president of Special Olympics Connecticut, known to many as the first person who introduced Unified Sports to the Special Olympics Movement, comments on the expansion and growth of playing unified. “When I look back to that one afternoon in 1984 talking with Mrs. Shriver (Special Olympics Founder) about taking a chance and bringing people without disabilities onto the same playing field as our athletes – I never thought in my lifetime, I would see us reach over a million people playing Unified Sports.  I’m literally blown away by the scale and success of our Unified Sports programming around the world.   True social inclusion – the connections that people make through participating in Unified Sports – is the end game. The day that I saw students in high school lettering on a Unified Sports team about 10 years ago made me feel that we were definitely moving down the path of true social inclusion.”

Unified Sports has been an integral part of Special Olympics Unified Schools (founded in 2008) which is funded through the U.S. Department of Education, and who encourages school communities to follow the model of Special Olympics and promote inclusion in schools. Three models exist within Unified Sports: competitive Unified Sports, Unified Sports Player Development, and Unified Sports Recreation. The Unified Sports competitive model combines Special Olympics athletes and partners as teammates on sport teams for training and competition. All athletes and partners on a Unified Sports competitive team must have attained the necessary sport-specific skills and tactics to compete and teams that participate in this model may be eligible for advancement to Regional and World Games. For the Unified Sports Player Development model, equal numbers of Special Olympics athletes and partners compete on the same team and are of similar age, but teammates are not required to be of similar abilities, and teammates of higher abilities serve as mentors to assist teammates of lower abilities. Lastly, for the Unified Sports Recreation model, there are inclusive recreational sports opportunities for Special Olympics athletes and partners. This model does not follow any prescribed training, competition and/or team composition requirements established by Special Olympics. These recreational opportunities may take place in partnership with schools, sport clubs, the community and other private or public organizations as one-day events, exhibitions or demonstrations or ongoing activities such as physical education classes and intramurals.

To further expand Unified Sports, in September 2013, Special Olympics announced a global initiative with ESPN, the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports®, to inspire sports fans everywhere to come out and play their favorite sports while also making a difference in their community. For the last three years ESPN has invested more than $3 million and strategically used its multi-platform media assets to expand Unified Sports globally. Such support has included capacity-building Unified Sports grants in more than 14 domestic and global markets including Connecticut, North Carolina, Mexico and India, as well as supporting key research, conferences, activations and other necessary resources to support the global expansion of Special Olympics Unified Sports.  As part of its continued support of Unified Sports, ESPN will invest in Special Olympics’ goal of building Unified Sports programming and resources in 10,000 schools by the year 2020.

“Reaching 1.2 million participants in Unified Sports is such a significant milestone for our organization,” said Mary Davis, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics. “In the 40 years I have been involved in our Movement, the emergence of Unified Sports has been a key indicator of our success in breaking down the barriers that exist for people with intellectual disabilities.  Being a part of a team and competing at your highest level while also building lasting friendships is something everyone wants to be part of, and we are offering that opportunity to everyone. We are so lucky to have such amazing supporters including ESPN, Kim Samuel, the Department of Education, and Lions Club International who have really catapulted us into making this milestone possible. Thanks to them, we are seeing more and more partners who want to join us and build Unified Sports and help inspire change on the playing field.”

As part of the celebration of surpassing the 1 million participant milestone, Special Olympics Florida is encouraging all who have been impacted by Unified Sports to share their story and thank those who have helped make the program possible. Fans and supporters are encouraged to use the hashtag #PlayUnified and share their stories from across the world.  We encourage you to read some of the inspiring stories from athletes and partners playing unified.

A Look at the Facts:

Unified Sports is now in more than 4,300 schools across the United States.  In the 2014-2015 school year, Unified Sports was implemented in 54% of elementary schools compared to 75% of middle schools and 81% of high schools. In total, 71% of schools implemented Unified Sports, an increase of 12% over the previous school year. An impressive 24% of all participants, or 1,560 people competing at the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles, competed in Unified Sports, making those Games the most unified World Games to date.

Thanks to the support of ESPN, Special Olympics also conducted an evaluation of Unified Sports programs worldwide to determine if Unified Sports impacts athletes’ and partners’ health, physical activity and sports participation outside of Special Olympics.   Some key results from the evaluations revealed that 89% of teammates said they are more comfortable talking to people with ID and 91% reported their sports skills improved. Based on these results, Special Olympics conducted focus groups on the meaning of inclusion with approximately 70 players and 35 coaches in 3 countries (United States, Bharat and Germany).  Qualitative results show the significance of friendship, sense of belonging to a group and access to opportunities on and off the sports field as indicators of inclusion.