Unified sports is a slam dunk

Slam Dunk

Unified Sports is an offshoot of Special Olympics that promotes social inclusion through shared sports training and competition by partnering people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. LaPlata County schools showcased their involvement in the program at a Unified Basketball Tournament held at Durango High School on February 20.

“We run a class called unified sports, and the premise is that you have a student with disabilities partnered with a ‘typical’ peer, and that is the magic,” Bayfield Middle School Principal Marcia Hoerl explained.

The Unified Sports approach was pioneered by Special Olympics in recognition of the fact that young people with disabilities generally don’t get opportunities to play on their school sports teams, and it is inspired by the belief that “training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding,” according to the Special Olympics website.

Hoerl has a background in coaching and competition, and when the CEO of Special Olympics first made her aware of Unified Sports at an event both were attending in Denver in 2010, the future BMS Principal was instantly attracted to the concept but wasn’t in a position to pursue it right away.


More than a decade later when she took on an administrative role in Bayfield, however, she recognized a kindred spirit on the staff and eagerly implemented the program for students at her new school.

Hoerl had known Amber Main when both worked in the Durango school system, and the new principal was confident that her Life Skills teacher had the perfect personality and skill set to launch a Unified Sports program at Bayfield Middle School

“She offers a welcoming and kind and inclusive environment, and her room is often a safe space for students who don’t have disabilities,” Hoerl reasoned.

The ability to offer a space where students with disabilities and their “typical” peers can both be comfortable is necessary if you want to cultivate partnerships between them, and Main’s Life Skill class proved to be the perfect environment.

“They do sports together. They do community service together. They learn together, and they notice there are fewer differences than they once thought,” Hoerl described. “You can see that they have a great relationship, and a lot of time the ‘typical’ peer is greatly impacted for the positive.”

Group at the table

“That is legitimate. It is not forced. It is so natural,” said Main, who co-teaches the Unified Sports class with PE/Health teacher Cameron Dodd.

In Main’s Life Skills class, many of these special needs students are already learning and practicing functional academic skills, like being able to read independently, answer comprehension questions, practice functional writing and focus on real-world math problems. The students learn how to do things like handle and count money, prepare grocery lists, build resumes, study proper hygiene, prepare food safely and explore potential jobs and careers.

They even run a weekly coffee shop for BMS staff members, and the addition of unified sports has presented another avenue where they can learn independence, community and self-awareness and emotional regulation.

The new athletic program has quickly grown in popularity as children have recognized the value of the experience, and as a result there is a waitlist for the ‘typical’ students who want to participate.

Unified Class

“They have to apply to be in the unified class, and it is pretty special to be picked for the class,” Hoerl reported.

“We had 40 applicants apply, and so we had to go through and weed out because the program is designed to be one-to-one and I only had eight kids (with disabilities),” Main confirmed.

There is a possibility that the program could grow. To this point, the unified sports athletes have given volleyball and indoor soccer a try as well, but basketball seems to be a pretty natural fit for the unified concept.

“I think that basketball lends itself to a slower pace,” Hoerl said.

Unified basketball games feature (2) five-minute halves, and the athletes with special needs do almost all the shooting and most of the dribbling, while their ‘typical’ counterparts handle the rebounding and passing.

“We try to make it about more than just the (2) five minute halves, and our kids are amazing at supporting our unified students. Some of our peers even helped with rebounds to the other team,” Hoerl smiled. “We just make everything work for every student.”


“It is a safe space for error, and it is adapted for each individual to be successful,” Main confirmed.

Prior to the tournament in February, the Bayfield unified team had been able to play a couple of games against first responders in the community, but for the most part they were playing games against themselves. Unified sports has opened the door to other competition for some of the athletes.

“We do have kids in unified who are on Bayfield Middle School teams,” Main reported.

The unified sports program took center stage again during Inclusion Week at BMS in early March by hosting a pep rally and dance where they led the way in encouraging students to be kind to others. They participate in a number of different activities at the school, and even hold their own fundraisers to raise funds for their sports.

“It has changed the dynamic at school. There’s always been a taboo around special education, and this takes that taboo away,” Main said.

According to the Special Olympics website, as many as 19.5 million young people are taking part in unified sports, and programming is in nearly 10,000 schools across the United States.

Tournament Participants

Bench Cheers

Cheering Player

Team Huddle

Coffee Sales