team photo

Volleyball, robotics and bowling are just some of the Unified Activities for middle and high school students this year. Unified Activities began with soccer in 2010 and have since grown to include six or more offerings each year. Additional activities are popping up organically: This summer a pair of golfers from Bellingham Public Schools entered and placed in a Unified Golf tournament, and a Unified Club is planned for Sehome High School.

Special Olympics created the Unified Sports program to bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities. Those with disabilities, referred to as “athletes,” play on the same team as their “partners” without disabilities. For robotics, students are “players” and “partners.” According to Special Olympics, about 1.4 million people worldwide participate in Unified Sports.

Parent Cindy Carp was impressed by the diversity of Unified offerings in Bellingham, having moved here a year ago from another district that did not have any offerings for students with special needs. “Here my daughter gets to be included, compared to where we lived before and she wasn’t able to participate in things.”

Her daughter Beth is an 11th grader at Sehome and participates in multiple Unified Activities. She said she enjoys meeting people and likes bowling best because she gets a lot of strikes.

Providing needed social inclusion

Unified Sports and Activities were inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

Jennifer Samuelson is a parent of a partner and says her daughter was excited and ready to be a partner in volleyball. “This provides a great connection with one of her classmates who is an athlete,” Samuelson said. “I love it and it’s a great program.”

Parent of an athlete and teacher Gretchen Howard noted the importance of social connections between the athletes and partners outside of the school day, “When students only see each other in a school setting, it can be hard to make connections. For students with developmental difficulties, this is especially tricky because they often have limited opportunities to connect with their peers outside of school.”

Howard continued, “Unified programs (both Sports and Robotics) allow kids with and without developmental disabilities to connect in a different, more intentional way. For most of us, invitations to connect with peers outside of school are few and far between. As a parent of a child with developmental disabilities, my hope is that the connections made during Unified programs lead to relationships that extend past the school setting.”

Student’s desire to share robotics launched a new offering

“I’m most excited about the fact that these Unified Sports and Activities are student-driven and embedded in our culture,” said Dominique Lantagne, a Special Education teacher who coordinates Unified Activities.

Klara Schwarz was a tenth grader when she began masterminding how to bring Unified Robotics to Bellingham, which began last year. Schwarz was inspired after her experiences competing in First Robotics, “I was able to connect with a team in Seattle who started a Unified Robotics program and it became really big down there. I told Heather [Steele] I wanted to start this and Career & Technical Education (CTE) is supporting us with kits.”

Partners and players meet six times, each team builds a robot using LEGO® MINDSTORMS®, and the program culminates in a Sumo-style robot competition in the Seattle Science Center. (The competitors set their robots down in autonomous mode and then the robots try to push each other down). Interest has grown from two players in 2018 to six in 2019.

“Van rides are really fun. Unified Robotics is really great way to expand our robotics outreach and it’s a fun environment to learn robotics,” said Schwarz. “Everyone here is learning too and it’s fun to have different ideas about robots.”

Eleventh grader Xander Gibson, who competed last year, is working on a robot with partner Max Gusukuma. “Maybe defense is the best offense,” he said.

When asked about Unified Robotics he said, “I’m happy to have another shot. It feels really good to be a part of this. I won’t forget it.”

Living out The Bellingham Promise

Bellingham Public Schools recently updated the strategic plan, The Bellingham Promise, adding a sixth key strategy: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. And earlier this year, the school board adopted a new race and equity policy, which acknowledges our ongoing equity, diversity and inclusion work and keeps Bellingham Public Schools accountable “to interrupt factors that perpetuate systemic inequities and practices that contribute to over- and under-representation of any student group compared to peers.”

“There have been tremendous strides in inclusion over the last 26 years that I volunteered with Special Olympics,” said Dominique Lantagne. “My favorite part of coordinating the Unified Sports and Activities is to watch students compete together as a team and experience the benefits of social connection through shared experience. There is no better way to see The Bellingham Promise in action than to witness the connection of students living Unified.”

For more information on Unified Activities offerings visit: https://promise.bellinghamschools.org/special-olympics-unified-sports/

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