Normally, when someone talks about barriers on a 65-degree day in the spring, they’re discussing hurdles set up on an oval track.
But on Tuesday, the talk at Columbia High School was about breaking barriers.
In a rare collaboration between state agencies, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics New York announced the establishment of Unified Sports, which will bring together students with and without intellectual disabilities to compete on one team.
The game will be basketball, and the area Unified Sports program will consist of 12 teams. Also taking part are Averill Park, Ballston Spa, Colonie, Glens Falls, Guilderland, Mechanicville, Mohonasen, Queensbury, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady and Shenendehowa.
Practices began on April 1, and the six-game season will begin on Monday, May 5. On each day of competition, double-headers will be held at host sites. The opening-day games will be played at Ballston Spa (Queensbury vs. Glens Falls at 4:15 p.m., Ballston Spa vs. Mechanicville at 5:30), Shenendehowa (Guilderland vs. Mohonasen at 4:15, Saratoga vs. Shenendehowa at 5:30) and Colonie (Columbia vs, Averill Park at 4:15, Schenectady vs, Colonie at 5:30).
At the end of the six-week season, the top six teams will advance to the Glens Falls Civic Center for a crossover championship tournament on May 31.
“The dynamic partnership with the NYSPHSAA will provide unprecedented opportunities for young people, with and without disabilities, to positively impact each other and their schools through one of society’s most common denominators — competitive sports,” said Neal Johnson, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York.
According to Johnson, a grant from the U.S. Department of Education provided seed money to create Unified Sports, and additional fund raising is planned to further expand the program.
While the Unified Sports basketball teams, which are co-ed, will be part of each participating school’s athletic program, the driving forces behind the program will be Youth Activation Committees at the participating schools. The YAC consists of youth leaders, also with and without intellectual disabilities, who strategize and plan activities.
“YAC will be driving the bus,” said Johnson. “They’re making it occur.”
“When I had an offer to help this team,” I jumped at it,” said Austin Smith, a Columbia student who is one of the partner representatives. “I saw it as a perfect chance to make a difference in school, and help break down the barriers between students who might not have interacted before,”
Raechel Yost, a YAC representative, said she didn’t fully grasp the concept of Unified Sports until she attended a basketball practice.
“I was shocked to realize I was unfamiliar with about half of the kids on the team,” she said. “Now, more of these students will have the opportunities to participate on a team like the rest of us here at Columbia.
“There was one very special person in my life who helped change me. When I was a child, we had an autistic neighbor, and when we included him in the games we were playing, he always got the biggest smile on his face. I want the kids at Columbia to feel what it’s like to be included.”
One of the students who will now have a chance to participate in sports is Isaiah Sowter.
“This is an incredible opportunity for me,” he said. “Years ago, people with different intellectual disabilities didn’t get an opportunity to play on a team.”
Columbia athletic director Mike Leonard is treating the Unified Sports team like any of the other Blue Devils’ programs.
“I’m just here to assist and do the things I normally do,” said Leonard. “I hired the coach, facilitated the schedule, got the uniforms, I’ll get the buses. When we have home games, I’m going to get my regular timekeeper, regular scorekeepers. I’m just doing everything I’d do with any of our other teams.”
The Blue Devils will be coached by Audra DiBacco, a social worker at the school who is also the varsity girls’ basketball coach at Catholic Central.
“She has the patience to go the extra step,” said Leonard. “That’s why she’s the perfect coach for this program.”
While the Section II program is the starting point, NYSPHSAA and Special Olympics are working to expand the program into lower Westchester County, the Hudson Valley or western New York.
“This is real sports,” said Johnson. “We’re going to have certified officials, everything. We’re serious about this. At the end of the [season], we’re going to have a champion. But everyone will be a winner.”