Study on Special Olympics’ Unified Sports explores experiences of students and coaches

Unified Sports offer students with and without intellectual disabilities the opp
Unified Sports offer students with and without intellectual disabilities the opportunity to play together on the same teams (photo courtesy Pasco County Schools CC BY-NC 2.0)
Researchers from the University of Toronto’ Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) collaborated with Special Olympics Ontario to explore perceptions of inclusion among students and coaches in school-based  Unified Sports  programs. 

Unified Sports are sport programs that offer opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities to participate on sports teams together.

Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos

"The intent of Unified Sports is to provide an inclusive experience by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities, but are these experiences truly inclusive and what does inclusion look and feel like in these sport programs?" says  Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos , an associate professor at KPE and principal investigator of the study. "If the students’ experiences are not fully inclusive, then how can inclusion be better fostered? 

"We explored these questions with some of the athletes and coaches who were participating at the inaugural Invitational Youth Games in May 2019 in Toronto, some of which were  hosted at University of Toronto."

The study, recently published in Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly , found that students’ and coaches’ beliefs and attitudes towards Unified Sports played a key role in the implementation of the sport programming in schools. The coaches specifically influenced the inclusive nature of the teams based on their own understanding and beliefs around inclusion such as what roles the students without disabilities have in Unified Sports.

"Which of the student athletes do the coaches select to take on a leadership role and how exactly are these decisions made?" says  Roxy O’Rourke , a PhD candidate in Arbour-Nicitopoulos’s ADAPT lab for accessible and inclusive physical activity and first author of the paper. "Are all students provided with the opportunity to play to the best of their abilities on the same team regardless of their experience with disability or not?" 

The researchers found that students with and without intellectual disabilities, as well as the coaches, value the inclusive nature of Unified Sports - in particular, how an inclusive sport program model implemented within the school system can translate to more inclusive practices and behaviours outside of the sport setting. That includes encouraging student groups to mingle at lunchtime and in hallways during breaks. 

"Increased social participation positively impacts the well-being of all students," Arbour-Nicitopoulos says. 

The findings also highlight the areas for growth and the influential role of coaches, as well as teammates, on sports teams. 

"If the idea is to have consistent implementation of programming, then there needs to be more evidence-based educational resources outlining these expectations and how to lead and develop Unified Sports programs within the school setting," says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. 

"Some of the language and practices used by participants highlight the need to focus on language choice within the sport environment, and to clearly establish the roles and responsibilities of all athletes and students engaged in the Unified Sports environment."

The researchers suggest future studies should explore training for coaches on inclusive practices - for example, language used in the sports environment when working with individuals with and without disabilities.

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