Special Olympics Unified Sport

Special Olympics Unified Sport is an inclusive sports program that brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together through competition. It was motivated by the straightforward idea that friendship and understanding may be quickly attained via playing and training together. Teams in Unified Sports are composed of individuals with comparable ages and skill levels. 

Through bringing people together, Unified Sport enables EVERY student to become part of their school's social fabric. Every student now has the opportunity to become an athlete, Unified Partner, or student leader while creating a more inclusive environment! Unified Sport benefits not just athletes but also our unified leaders and partners. 

The concept of combining athletes with and without intellectual disabilities was first introduced in the mid-1980s to provide another challenge for higher-ability athletes and promote equality and inclusion. Unified Sport has become a transformative platform for breaking down barriers, fostering greater acceptance and promoting social inclusion and empowerment through sports. It is now a global movement that brings people together through sport. About 1.2 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports. This program empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports. 

Many high-profile, professional sports organizations and events have also showcased Unified Sports as a vehicle to show the power of inclusive sports! Notably, the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) participate in unified programming. Click to watch Special Olympics' Play Unified video. 

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Components of a Unified Sports Program

A Special Olympics athleteis an athlete with an intellectual disability or challenge of any kind (all types are accepted, no documentation required). 

Why Play Unified?

Unified Sport provides a pathway for full school engagement and meaningful inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities and challenges. Notably, Unified Sport provides significant social benefits for both Special Olympics athletes and Unified Partners. Our athletes develop life-long friendships, are recognized as contributors, are received with acceptance and respect, and become a greater part of the school community. This program also offers students without disabilities an opportunity to be a leader, to learn, understand and appreciate differences, compete on a sports team, travel and develop meaningful relationships and connections. Special Olympics Sport is unlike any other. The sporting environment is more than just one team, school, or event; it's a movement that impacts everyone involved, regardless of wins or defeats. 

In addition, Unified Sport is a competition pathway that allows athletes to compete at a higher level and have more opportunities to participate in sports.  Overall, this program breaks down barriers every day, improving the self-esteem, social skills, and physical and cognitive abilities of individuals with intellectual disabilities and improving their quality of life. 

Divisions

Teams are grouped in divisions according to their team ranking and selected classification. On the registration forms, schools will be asked to select what level their team would like to compete in. Teams can select more competitive play where athletes have a moderate-high skill- set and understanding of the rules, or less competitive play where athletes are new/learning the sport and Unified Partners take on a more faciliatory role. 

Unified Partners are there to compete alongside higher-level SO Athletes. Unified Partners are intended to score points, impact the game meaningfully and compete in this category in both divisions. Unified Partners should be tasked with defending the opposing Unified Partner. Note: Unified Partners are not permitted to take over games but are expected to contribute to winning. Coaches are responsible for ensuring the correct involvement of their players. 

How to Get Involved?

Embarking on the journey to get involved and build a Unified program is a straightforward process, follow these steps to get started!

  1. Form a team by reaching out to your school or teacher to initiate the program. Whether you are a parent, athlete, or partner, the first step is to reach out to your school or teacher to get the program off the ground. 

  2. Pair a group of SO Athletes/Special Education Students with a smaller group of mainstream students.

  3. Select Unified Partners from leadership classes, sports teams, or through extracurricular sign-ups. Unified Partners are typically chosen from a leadership class, a sports team, or students can sign up for it as an extracurricular activity. Unified Partners range from the starters on the basketball team to student leaders to students who have never had the opportunity to play on a team. 

  4. Participate in in-person sports, virtual events, athlete showcases, or qualify for school championships.

  5. Mentorship opportunities are available for those interested in starting a program - Unified Champions Schools and Teachers are available throughout the province.

How to Build the Program
Unified goes further than just attending events! A Unified program creates full school engagement and inclusion. This is how it’s done: 

  1. Embedding Unified programming into gym classes (Unified PE) and leadership classes.

  2. Adopting consistent team practices and social events for relationship building.

  3. Creating afterschool and lunch break programs.

  4. Having Unified Partners advocate and spread awareness through fundraising, social media, and incorporating SO athletes into school activities.

Unified Sports

Special Olympics Ontario runs five secondary school qualifiers each year in every major city in the province for both traditional and Unified teams. The sports are soccer, basketball, bocce, Floorball, and virtual track & field. Teams that qualify for these events can participate in our version of OFFSA, the provincial school championships. Our events are open to public, catholic and private schools across Ontario. Our competitions are designed to provide opportunities for students trying sports for the first time and those more experienced in sports competitions. To register, click here! 
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Unified Soccer

Special Olympics Ontario runs 16 soccer events throughout the province in September and October. Each Unified team will enter a roster of up to ten athletes: six Special Olympics Athletes and four Unified Partners (a minimum of 3 SO athletes and 2 partners are required to play).

Unified Soccer is 5v5 and played outdoors; games are 20 minutes long with a two-minute half-time, and a maximum of two Unified players can be on the field at a time. Each team is guaranteed two games at their local. All rules of the game align with traditional soccer rules. The only exception is that throw-ins are kick-ins. The Ontario Soccer Association will officiate games. Click here to see the full copy of our rules!

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Unified 3 on 3 Basketball

In November and December, Special Olympics runs 30 basketball competitions in Ontario. The Unified team will consist of up to 4 Special Olympics athletes and two Unified Partners (a minimum of 2 SO athletes and 1 Unified Partner are required to play).

Unified basketball is 3v3, games are 20 minutes long with a two-minute half-time, and each team is guaranteed two games at their local. All traditional basketball rules apply: there are no foul shots, and athletes must clear the ball to the key; the ball will change possession after each score. The Ontario Basketball Association will officiate games. Click here to see the full copy of our rules!

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Unified Bocce

Special Olympics athletes take the court with their Unified Partners in February and March to compete in our 4v4 bocce competitions. Bocce is played indoors, typically in a gym or dome, using our soft bocce balls and court outlines. Bocce is one of the Special Olympics' most exciting and inclusive sports. Games are also 20 minutes long, and teams are guaranteed three games. Click here to see the full copy of our rules!
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Unified Floorball

Our newest sport, floorball, takes place in the spring, at the end of March and through April. Teams can consist of up to 8 players (5 Traditional, 3 Unified Partners. Games are played 4v4 (1 goalie + 3 players), with two ten-minute periods. Games are also 20 minutes long, and teams are guaranteed three games. Traditional floor hockey rules and unique floorball sticks and whiffle balls are used, creating an exciting, safe and fast-paced sport with few equipment requirements.  

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Unified Track & Field

Track and Field is Special Olympics School's lone individual sport. But it doesn't have to be. Throughout the year, until the end of April, schools can form unlimited Unified teams consisting of one Unified Partner and one SO Athlete.

Unified pairs will compete alongside each other in the same number of events. Unified Teams will be divided separately from traditional athletes and be provided separate quota allocations based on regional participation. Team times and scores will be added to represent each pair's overall score and divided based on age, gender, and combined race times. The awarded points and selection process will proceed similarly to the traditional division qualification noted above. Click here to see the full copy of our rules!

    School Championships

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    Our School Championships is a 3-day multi-sport event at the end of the year, bringing hundreds ofqualifying athletes from across the Province together for three days of competition and excitement. The five Unified Sports will include Athletics, Basketball, Bocce, Floorball, and Soccer. This life-changing experience allows our athletes to compete on the provincial stage. Learn more at schoolchamps.ca  

    Athlete Showcases

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    Our showcase events feature a Special Olympics Ontario-style 3-on-3 Unified basketball competition. These are regional weekend tournaments designed to highlight our athletes, bring parents to our events, and connect our communities with our schools. TheUnified showcaseis open to Unified teams, parings, individual SO athletes or partners to sign up. These events are available to recent graduates and current high school students.  

    More Information

    For more information on Unified Sport, please visit our Unified Resources or see below: