Unified Sports®

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Unified Sports® is a registered program of Special Olympics that combines athletes with and without intellectual disability (or other developmental delays) on sports teams for training and competition. All Unified Sports® teammates are of similar age and teams are placed in competitive divisions based on their skill abilities, and range from developmental to recreation al to competitive.

In 1992, as part of an effort to reach school-aged athletes, Connecticut Special Olympics formed a partnership with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference to bring Unified Sports® to Connecticut’s schools. The CIAC/Special Olympics Unified Sports® Program operates throughout the school year and closely follows the school calendar. Unified Sports® events are organized each sport season for middle and high school students (soccer, basketball, volleyball, bowling, track and field) and in culminating events for elementary and young athlete participants. All public and parochial schools in Connecticut are invited to participate. Today 95% of Connecticut’s public high schools offer Unified Sports® programs.

In the preschool and kindergarten levels the Young Athlete and Elementary Programs include students with and without disabilities with a focus on gross motor development and social inclusion. At the elementary level, students engage in non-competitive athletic activities designed to develop skills in a variety of sports. These programs end with a culminating activity at the local or regional level.

The CIAC/SOCT Unified Sports® model includes a youth leadership component with a focus on inclusion and positive school climate initiatives such as the R-Word Campaigns, Fans in the Stands, and Unified Clubs. Each year the CIAC/SOCT program hosts a Youth Leadership Summit to help schools develop their programs. A major recognition event, the Michael’s Cup Banquet, is held each spring to honor students for their contribution to their school programs.

The cooperative and innovative partnership between CIAC and Special Olympics Connecticut has had and will continue to have a dramatic impact on the number of school age children who have the opportunity to participate in organized team sports through their school. The program currently boasts a participation of more than 9500 athletes and partners, and 287 schools throughout the state.

What are the benefits of the CIAC/Special Olympics Unified Sports® Program?

The CIAC/Special Olympics Unified Sports® Program provides a forum for positive social interaction between intellectually disabled and non-disabled students. As Unified® teammates train and compete together they foster ties that develop into friendships both on and off the athletic field.

Participation in Unified Sports® leads to new friendships, improved self-esteem and positive changes in attitude, behavior, and performance.

The CIAC/Special Olympics Unified Sports® Program helps to foster an inclusive school community where the values of tolerance, patience and sensitivity are cornerstones.

What does a school need in order to get involved in Unified Sports®?

To start a Unified Sports® program in your school, you will need:

1. A coach who holds a Connecticut coaches permit issued through the Connecticut State Department of Education. If your coach does not hold a permit they can contact the CIAC offices at (203) 250-1111 and information will be provided as to securing the certification. In addition to the Connecticut coaches permit, all coaches should take the online Unified Sports® coaches training offered by the NFHS.

2. At least three (3) students who meet the Unified Sports® eligibility criteria. (NOTE: there is no minimum number of athletes required for participation in elementary Unified Sports® activities.)

3. Available athletic equipment/facilities for team practices

4. The support of the principal and parents

The Unified Sports® coordinator/coach is responsible for assembling a team and coordinating the practice schedule. These tasks can be easily accomplished with the cooperation of your special education department and your Athletic Director.

For questions and/or further information, contact George Synnott, Director of Unified Sports®, at


K. Riordan, Coach, Memorial Middle School

“Passing a ball across a court or racing down a field side-by-side teaches tolerance and acceptance in a way that is rarely achieved in the classroom.”

Ellen Cunha, Coach, Glastonbury High School

“Unified Sports® competition drew out more self-confidence and courage in my students than I had seen in my classroom all year.”

Steve Garneau, Coach, Pleasant Valley Elementary School

“Just a wonderful concept: athletes of all ability levels coming together to work towards a common goal. Our students can hardly wait until next year’s events begin.”

Tracy Eissa, Special Partner, Manchester High School

“It makes me feel good that I can make a difference in someone’s life, to see the special education students so happy and enthusiastic to work with me.”

Vincent Ferrandino, Former Commissioner of Education

“The State Department of Education has a commitment to enhance and promote the integration of special education students in their local schools as well as increase their participation in their local communities. CAS-CIAC has demonstrated its commitment to this mission through its recognition of the need for this type of activity in Unified Sports®.”

John Proctor, Superintendent, Regional School District #4

“At the CIAC/Special Olympics Unified Sports® Volleyball Tournament at John Winthrop Junior High School, I could see and feel the enthusiasm from both Special Athletes and Special Partners. It was thrilling. It represented a terrific example of the collaborative model in action, with everybody willingly helping each other for the sheer joy of the experience.”

Dr. Marjorie Bradley, Principal, Fawn Hollow Elementary, Monroe

“The Unified Sports® Program helps our young people to appreciate their differences as well as their similarities in the athletic arena. It is an excellent counterpart to our academic mainstreaming efforts.”

Kevin O'Donnell, Unified Sports® Coach

“There was a significant increase in the skill level of the Special Athletes; and, what an excellent opportunity for growth for Special Partners. Partners noticed how good they felt to be able to help. They also felt a new understanding for their peers with special needs. The two Unified Sports® events I have participated in have been among the most rewarding experiences in my 21-year career in education.”

D. Coleman, Special Partner

“Not only did I teach, but I learned; not only did I give, but I received. Little did I know how much a smile and a new friend would effect my life.”

I. To be eligible for participation in Unified Sports®, an outgrowth of Special Olympics, a competitor must agree to observe and abide by the Official Special Olympics Sports Rules.

II. Unified Sports® and its parent-arm, Special Olympics, were created and developed to give individuals with intellectual disability the opportunity to train and compete in sports activities. No person shall, on the grounds of sex, race, religion, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of Special Olympics.

III. Eligibility for participation in Unified Sports® :

a. General Statement of Eligibility. Every person with intellectual disabilities who is at least five years of age is eligible to participate in Unified Sports®.

b. Age Requirements. The minimum age requirement for participation in Unified Sports® is five years of age.

c. Degree of Disability. Participation in Unified Sports® training and competition is open to all persons with intellectual disabilities who meet the age requirement of this Section, regardless of the level or degree of that person’s disability, and whether or not that person also has other mental or physical disabilities, so long as that person registers to participate in Unified Sports® as required by these General Rules.

d. Identifying Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. A person is considered to have intellectual disabilities for purposes of determining his or her eligibility to participate in Unified Sports® if that person satisfies any one of the following requirements:

1) The person has been identified by an agency or professional as having intellectual disabilities as determined by their localities; or

2) The person has a cognitive delay, as determined by standardized measures such as intelligent quotient or “IQ” testing or other measures which are generally accepted within the professional community in that Accredited Program’s nation as being a reliable measurement of the existence of a cognitive delay; or

3) The person has a closely related developmental disability. A “closely related developmental disability” means having functional limitations in both general learning (such as IQ) and in adaptive skills (such as in recreation, work, independent living, self-direction, or self-care). Persons whose functional limitations are based solely on a physical, behavioral, or emotional disability, or a specific learning or sensory disability, are also eligible to participate as Unified athletes or partners.