All eyes have been glued to Rio for the past two weeks. Both the U.S. men’s and women’s 4×100-meter swimming medley relay teams won the gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics. The medley relay race perfectly exemplifies the power of uniting athletes’ unique strengths to achieve more than any one person could by him or herself.
As the president and CEO of Special Olympics Florida, I have been able to witness a movement growing here in Florida and throughout the world through Special Olympics Unified Sports. As in the swimming medley, Special Olympics Florida is bringing together athletes of diverse abilities to bring about incredible change.
The Unified Sports program joins people with intellectual disabilities (Special Olympics athletes) and without (Unified partners), playing together on the same team to promote social inclusion and mutual respect. Through shared sports training and competition experiences, people of all abilities build relationships and have fun playing sports.
The opportunity for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports alongside their peers without disabilities is invaluable, but I believe it is equally beneficial for those without disabilities to get to know and befriend individuals who are often labeled as “different.”
Special Olympics athletes have extraordinary potential and so much to contribute but rarely are given the chance to show it. Through collaboration in Unified Sports, athletes improve their social and behavioral skills while showcasing their potential, and partners develop a broader sense of compassion and understanding. I most often hear partners say, “I thought I would be teaching the athletes, but they ended up teaching me.”
Inclusion and diversity are commendable goals, but people and organizations often lack practical applications to turn them into real-world improvements. We strive every day to make these ideals a reality in our schools and communities.
A set of parents recently shared with us that Unified Sports has given them the chance to coach and cheer on both of their children (one with autism and one without a disability) on the same team for the first time. They finally were able to participate as an undivided family, all together striving toward the same goal.
Unified Sports is officially active in more than 100 schools in Florida, but is not limited to student athletes. Special Olympics has no upper age limit, so once individuals with intellectual disabilities age out of the school system, it is even more vital that they maintain relationships and structure through organized sports activities.
Special Olympics Florida is not a one-day event. We serve more than 35,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities across the state and host more than 400 events each year in 23 sports. We offer Unified Sports teams in 15 sports including basketball, bocce, tennis, soccer, athletics (track and field), volleyball, golf, flag football, cheerleading, softball, bowling, cycling, equestrian, gymnastics, and swimming.
We have made incredible progress, but we still have so far to go.
You can help in any number of ways: Volunteer at one of our events, serve as a coach, join a community-based Unified team, help bring Unified Sports to your or your child’s school, stand up against bullying of people with disabilities, strike up a conversation with someone “different” than you, or share your own ideas with us.
Just like Team USA’s swimming medley teams in Rio, Special Olympics Florida celebrates inclusion. We are all stronger together.