PORTLAND, Maine — By all accounts, what is happening feels a bit magical at more than 100 schools across Maine. Team sports - called Unified Athletics - are pairing students who have intellectual disabilities - with students who don’t – on the same team. Students work together as partners, and mentors, and ultimately friends.They practice together, take to the court together, and triumph together. When they take to the court as a team, the playing field is leveled. Allison Carmichael is a Unified Coach and Special Ed teacher at Westbrook High School. “I actually was not sure what it was going to do. These are kids who typically are self-contained, so I wasn’t sure how this was gonna go. But the school’s been so supportive…People know these kids names where before they didn’t and so the kids walk a lot taller and just the smile on their faces is huge. They feel like kings of the castle a lot of the time which is so fantastic to see. So, all day long? It’s basketball this, basketball that.“
Unified Athletics is a collaborative effort between the Maine Principals Association and The Special Olympics. “We think that the best part of Unified Basketball is not actually what you’re gonna see here tonight. I mean, tonight, you’re gonna see some great basketball. But what you’re not seeing tonight is what’s been happening off the field for the entire season. These kids have gotten together maybe with kids they’ve never hung out with before. Kids they may have seen in the hallway or seen in the classrooms, but they’ve never been able to develop a relationship with them,” says Lisa Bird of the Special Olympics. “We’re changing the cultures in Maine high schools and middle schools. We’re completely changing attitudes, and improving people’s lives because of it.”
Just a few days ago, the Maine Principals Association - which oversees Unified Athletics -- voted to suspend the playoffs and championship games for the next two years - because play had become too competitive during that part of the season. Schools with Unified teams support this decision - and this year will instead host year-end festivals.
“It goes beyond just playing basketball. It’s acceptance. You know, in the cafeteria or in the hallway. That these are athletes just like every other kid,” says Mike Burnham, Assistant Executive Director of the Maine Principals Association. Last year Westbrook brought home the gold ball. This year, that honor went to Madison. But Unified teams have proven to be so much more than winning and losing.
“It’s had a HUGE effect on these kids. A lot of these kids wouldn’t even go to school dances or school social events. Now they’re like “Mr. Russell, can I get a ticket to the school dance?” says Mike Russell, also a coach of the Westbrook Unified Basketball Team. “We may not even know the effects of this for years to come – because the change that’s happened just over the last three or four years? Has been huge.”
Westbrook High School has a waiting list for kids who want to be mentors on the Unified Team. And often mentors who graduate stay in touch with teammates and return to watch games from the stands. As the Athletic Director at Greely High School in Cumberland, David Shapiro has seen this program change his community in ways he could not imagine. “It’s awesome. If this isn’t the best part of your day, you’d have an outstanding day. I just see pure joy. You know? They just shine. I don’t know if that’s the right word but it’s pure joy to see them out there competing.”
Westbrook is actually considering fielding two teams next year because they have so many kids who are interested in being part of Unified sports. Over 100 schools in Maine offer Unified teams in basketball, volleyball and track and field. If you would like to learn more about these teams you can contact the Maine Principals Association at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Brittany Pair at the Special Olympics at email@example.com.