Special Olympics Unified Sports: Are They Inclusive Enough?

Wherever Rosemary Parisi goes in Mount Olive, she meets people who know her daughter Gabriella.

GiGi, who has Down syndrome, was a year-round general education athlete at Mount Olive High School and homecoming queen. She even appeared on a Times Square billboard sponsored by the National Down Syndrome Society.

Exercise was key to GiGi’s popularity, surprising even Rosemary, a special education teacher at MacKinnon Middle School in Wharton.

GiGi was part of Mount Olive’s field hockey, basketball, and softball teams alongside her neurotypical peers. She also participates in Mount Olive’s Special Olympics Unified Athletics program, which brings together students with intellectual disabilities and neurotypical partners.

Unified clubs, teams and events often require less time commitment than their equivalents in general education. But there are few limitations on what can be called unified or how comprehensive these programs should be.

Mount Olives Gabriella "GiGi" Parisi is ready to pass to Matt Montello during the 4x200 at the NJAC Unified Track and Field Championships May 24, 2018 at Jefferson Township High School.

Morristown’s David May believes Unified is more restrictive than the Americans with Disabilities Act promises.

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. The related Disability Education Act provides more than 7.5 million eligible children with disabilities with a free, adequate public education — in as restrictive an environment as possible — and ensures special education and related services.

May would prefer special needs students to compete alongside Gen-Ed athletes on a single team. But Unified doesn’t allow collegiate athletes to be team partners during the season, so their background and activity experience varies.

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