The following post is written by Brad Gardner, a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Three years ago I was asked to organize a unified flag football team at the University of Alabama. Without any prior experience or knowledge of Special Olympics Unified Sports, I was unsure of what to expect. All I knew was that in a few weeks, our unified flag football team would take on Louisiana State University for the first time.
I began to piece together a team of 10 college students and 10 Special Olympics athletes from Tuscaloosa. For everyone, it was their first time participating in Unified Sports. In fact, most of the Special Olympics athletes and Unified Partners had never met each other prior to the first practice. However, over the course of 10 weeks our team practiced and grew together. Friendships were formed that lasted on and off field. With the support of ESPN, the game garnered the attention of the numerous fans from both teams, the Governor of Alabama, the Million Dollar Band, and other notable VIPs.
What started as only a team of 10 Unified Partners and 10 Special Olympics athletes has now turned into a team of nearly 400 college students and 50 Special Olympics athletes from Tuscaloosa. Now a senior at The University of Alabama, I can honestly say that Unified Sports has provided some of the best memories in college.
My teammates and I have been fortunate enough to travel all across the United States ranging from Los Angeles for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, to Ohio for the NIRSA National Championship Series in Unified Basketball, to Auburn and Baton Rouge for the Special Olympics Unified Sports Rivalry Series. The friendships and memories that have been formed through Unified Sports will certainly last a lifetime.
Through my participation I began to learn:
#1: Breaking down barriers is a hands-on job
There are things you cannot learn in the classroom or through lectures. Once you participate in Unified Sports, and the playing field is leveled, you gain a better understanding of individuals with intellectual disabilities. You begin to realize that they too deserve to have a valued spot on our teams, in our communities, and in our lives.
#2: Abilities > Limitations
Rather than comparing limitations, it is time to start celebrating everyone’s different abilities. Everyone has a unique gift to offer and it is okay to be different. Abilities differ, and this is what helps shape who we are as people and as a community.
#3: Anything is possible through teamwork
One of the most powerful tools on this planet is a team. A team can be a force for innovation that can help bring individuals with and without intellectual disabilities together. When you are unified towards a common goal, barriers are broken and labels of “abled” and “disabled” fade away. When you have a cohesive team of friends working together, things that once seemed impossible become possible.
The #PlayUnified movement is empowering individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to be tomorrow’s leaders of change on and off the field. By playing unified, we can bring down intolerance and help make communities accepting and respectful for all. Although we are celebrating reaching 1.2 million unified teammates worldwide, there is always room on this team! Sign up to #PlayUnified today: www.playunified.org.