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Unified: Sports Builds Community Among Students With Differences

Unified: Sports Builds Community Among Students With Differences

  • For Parents |
  • In the News |
  • February 7, 2019

Friendly High School student-athletes Luke Swindler and Jordan Riley are the epitome of team players. They recently helped secure their school’s bocce team as Prince George’s County South Division champs. And next week, they are headed to Capitol Hill as part of the state of Maryland’s Special Olympics Advocacy Day team.

As students representatives, Luke and Jordan will join advocates including health professionals, educators and state Special Olympics athletes to request that state lawmakers continue federal funding for health and education programs that help students with intellectual disabilities.

One of those life-shaping programs is Interscholastic Unified Sports.

At Friendly, Unified Sports gives students with disabilities equal opportunity to participate on traditional sports teams. Luke and Jordan, both enrolled in Friendly’s six-year Community Referenced Instruction (CRI) program, play on varsity sports teams like bocce and track and field alongside peers who don’t have disabilities.

Unified Sports isn’t just about athletics — and it doesn’t only benefit students like Luke and Jordan. It is good for the entire school community.

“Bringing together students with differences through sports helps us create a school environment that is welcoming and accepting of those with a difference,” said Laura Sibbald, Bocce team assistant coach and PGCPS speech-language pathologist. “It really broadens students’ social circles and fosters an inclusive school community.”

In addition to sports, the program’s education component teaches Luke and Jordan skills that make them productive workers, self-advocates and leaders.

“Participation in this program is critical  to their overall social development,” said Sibbald. “They are building independence, decision-making skills and soft skills that prepare them for the working world.”

Jordan’s mom Jeanette Taylor says she has seen her son become more social since participating.

“They are building real friendships with average students who cheer them on and know them by name. It’s an awesome thing to see,” she said.

Of Luke, mom Lynn Swindler noted he has gained work ethic and a sense of initiation and leadership through the program — skills that are translating in his job and at home.

When Luke graduates this year, he will have played 18 varsity sports, made countless friends and been a two-year participant in the County’s Project Search initiative, a transition-to-work program that provides internships to high school students with disabilities. Half of Project Search interns are currently students at Friendly— a testament to effectiveness of the school’s approach.

“Students are gaining experiences they need to be ready for transitions and are able to translate skills across the settings of home, school and life,” said Sibbald.  “This program builds the whole person, which in turn builds a community.”