By Erin O’Sullivan

This February, CEOs and business leaders from across the country came together in Dallas, TX for the annual Special Olympics (SO) US Business Meeting. Executives from each state’s SO offices, as well as leaders from SO corporate partners, attended. Throughout the multi-day event, these leaders considered how they could leverage their resources and combine their experiences in pursuit of SO’s self-described “global social movement”: to foster the inclusion and acceptance of all people. And, this year, NIRSA was represented as well.

The recent, expanded partnership between Special Olympics International and NIRSA focuses on the growth of Unified Sports—an SO initiative that joins people with and without disabilities together on the same team. This emerging facet was built upon several years of grassroots enterprise by NIRSA members—from the partnership with Special Olympics North America to include a SO division at NIRSA Flag Football regionals to the natural fit Unified Sports found in several Intramural departments across the country. Throughout the years of initial partnership, the alignment of our missions, visions, and cultures was always clear. The experiences of NIRSA President Stan Shingles and NIRSA Executive Director Pam Watts at the recent business meeting simply solidified that alignment was consistent both on and off the field.

One of the meeting’s biggest takeaways didn’t come from a formal business session. Stan and Pam found that in every interaction, be it a hallway conversation between sessions or chatting in the hotel lobby, SO folks at all levels made an effort to make them feel welcomed and involved. For Pam, such action “really cemented the idea that this is the right partnership for NIRSA; both organizations are focused on social inclusion and valuing every individual.”

Stan agreed, noting how much the experience reminded him of a NIRSA conference. “It’s easy to put values on paper—to say you value inclusion,” he says. “It’s another thing to have that woven into your organization’s culture.”

That cultural practice will be key moving forward. One of the emphases at the SO Business Meeting this year was on inclusion. For nearly fifty years, Special Olympics has worked tirelessly to provide equal opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities; through the platform of sport, SO athletes were empowered and the games’ wider audiences were forced to consider all those individuals could do, rather than what they could not do. The success of that work now necessitates more action: bringing these athletes in from the margins.

Unified Sports, which puts people of similar ages on a team together, helps to break down stereotypes and barriers. Through the platform of sport, both SO athletes and their teammates can find pathways to understanding and friendship. And NIRSA recognizes that this larger vision—of included and equal—is not only about bettering these athletes’ futures.

The effect participation in Unified Sports has on our students is undeniable—something NIRSA Championship Series Chair Kurt Klier touched on poignantly in last month’s blog post. It opens up a different opportunity for student development through sport; it allows the development of cultural competencies through inclusive practices—a skill set ever more relevant as our students graduate into tomorrow’s leaders and world-shapers.

One thing SO is well aware of is that participation in Unified Sports is high among high school students; however, it sees a steady drop-off in college-aged participation. As collegiate recreation professionals, we have a responsibility to take a lesson from our students and provide opportunities for continuity and growth in the inclusive practices so many of them are opting to begin in high school.

NIRSA 2016: How to get involved

Want to know more about the NIRSA and Unified Sports partnership? Want to speak with Unified Sports professionals directly about how to bring (or grow!) this opportunity on your campus? The 2016 NIRSA Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Expo taking place in Kissimmee, FL from April 3–6 has what you need!

Opening General Session – Sunday, April 3 – 3:30pm–5:00pm – Osceola C/D

You wouldn’t want to miss this one anyway, but now there’s one more reason to be sure to join in the fun! Marc Edenzon, Chief Programs Officer of Special Olympics, will be onstage to greet the NIRSA membership and share some of the vision for Unified Sports on our campuses.

Ed Session: “Let’s Change the Game: The Impact of Including Unified Sports in a Competitive Sports Program” – Monday, April 4 – 8:00am–9:00am – Osceola B

Hear about the Unified Sports experience from your colleagues who have planned and implemented Unified Sports Programs on their campuses. Discover the program’s impact on the student population, competitive sports staff, local community, and athletes.

The Unified Sports Experience booth – Expo Hall

This booth will be a fixture in the Expo Hall! Come by and meet NIRSA members dedicated to the Unified Sports mission and experience. They’ll be able to answer individual questions and you can also pick up a toolkit detailing how bring this initiative to your campus.

“Let’s Play Bocce” – Sunday, April 3, 5:30pm–7:00pm & Monday, April 4, 10:00am–11:30am, 12:30pm–2:00pm – Expo Hall

This interactive event is the best way to get a feel for Unified Sports—experience it for yourself! Several Special Olympics athletes will be ready to join up with NIRSA members for 10-minute games of bocce. Come join the fun and make some new friends!


For more information about NIRSA’s partnership with Special Olympics, please contact NIRSA Director of National Sport Programs Valerie McCutchan.