Unified Special Olympics Field Day 2018. Many students enjoying a day filled with athletics and competition.

Photo courtesy of Tricia Brawley

Unified Special Olympics: fighting to survive

December 15, 2018

Over the course of four years, Unified Special Olympics has grown from a local tournament to a full-fledged club at DGS.
Unified Special Olympics as a club has grown from under 10 participants in 2016 to over 30 active members in 2018. Club sponsor and teacher at DGS, Brett Wolf attributes the growth to a different approach being taken in reaching the student body at DGS.
“Before it was certain kids who were involved with Special Olympics and we kind of played basketball with the kids. Now we’re trying to reach the whole school with Respect Week. More meetings, more involvement and we’ve also involved our students with multiple disabilities into our group a little better as well,” Wolf said.
Similarly, a four-year member of Unified, senior Esther Crandell believes that Unified has led to a greater involvement from the whole community at DGS.

Unified Special Olympics tournament 2016. Photo courtesy of Unified Special Olympics Illinois.


“I have seen more involvement of general education students in the building get involved with our Special Education community. I also know that people really look forward to unified because of the excitement and passion people have brought to the club,” Crandell said.
Unified Special Olympics offers opportunities for general education students to become involved. One of the main aspects of Unified Special Olympics has been the Youth Activation Summit.
The summit is a two-day retreat where general education students partner with special education students to learn goals and activities to improve the school community and make it more inclusive for all students. Senior Vince Woodman attended the Youth Activation Summit in 2017.
“Going to the Summit has unfortunately shown me more issues within our building; however, I believe Unified Special Olympics really helped to combat these issue through the medium of sports,” Woodman said.
Crandell, who attended the summit in 2016 and has been a leader for it from 2017-present, also believes in what the Youth Activation Summit can accomplish.
“It’s changed my perspective on understanding people better and making new relationships. I have learned about being a good partner, and have grown as a leader from my experiences in being a leader for Special Olympics. With having these opportunities it has made me realize we could be way more inclusive in our building to our students with special needs,” Crandell said.
Unified Special Olympics competes in the annual tournament at Metea Valley High School. The team went 2-1 on the day before losing in the elimination round.

While club Unified still offers many opportunities to get involved, the local tournament was recently taken away. Unified began at DGS when students began participating in this tournament and now that it is gone, many people are skeptical about the future of Unified Special Olympics at DGS.
“I think it hurts a little bit because our standing in the state that we have been trying to become a state-level model for what Unified looks like and these tournaments are kind of our big [event],” Wolf said.
Club Unified members echoed similar messages of disappointment about the lack of competitive tournaments for the members to participate in. What had been a staple of the club since its beginning was no longer available.
“Not having sports as part of our club is really disappointing not only for the General Education students but for the Special Education Students. They look forward to these [interactions] with their peers that they don’t normally get. … The special education students get to work on not only their basketball skills but their social skills too. So I guess there isn’t as much to look forward [to] or to prepare for without attending the unified tournament this year,” Crandell said.

Even with the removal of the tournament, Unified is still doing its best to continue to integrate the two communities within DGS. Through the club, a new Unified Field Day was created to continue to work on inclusion and acceptance within the school.

Unified Special Olympics Tournament 2015. Photo courtesy of Unified Special Olympics Illinois.

 

Student Activities Director, Jennifer Martinez, believes that Unified’s strengths lie in its ability to reach the student body even without a tournament. “I really believe that the respect week is awesome. I can’t say enough about that and I just see the greatest influence and the most potential. … I’m really excited to see how that grows,” Martinez said. In Unified Special Olympics, students are labeled as Unified Athletes if they represent the special education community and Unified partners if they represent the general education community. Unified Partner and junior Sam Hanek talk about the Unified Field Day and about her personal experience.
“I think it was an amazing experience. It’s a day where you can just hang out and play sports with everybody, special ed students and all. It’s good to hang out with the special ed kids to help close that border between gen ed students and special ed students,” Hanek said.
The Unified Field Day occurs twice a year and allows general education students and special education students from DGS to come together and compete in multiple different sports with each other. Unified Athlete and junior, Johnny Zetera expresses his commitment to Unified is more than just about being competitive.
“I had fun. They had different activities and meet new people and friends,” Zetera said.
Moving forward, Club Unified will look to continue to work on the inclusion of special education students into the lives of people in the DGS community.
“[Unified] helps to close the social gap between special (education) students and [general] education students. It’s important that the different groups of students have experience with one another to realize they have more in common than difference,” Hanek said.

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