Legislation Signed During Games
Washington, D.C. – Special Olympics Unified Sports, an inclusive sports program that combines individuals with intellectual disabilities and partners without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition, is a significantly growing program that has direct results in building more inclusive school climates. This news is especially significant as this legislation passed during the third annual Special Olympics USA Games, hosted by the state of New Jersey, bringing 3,500 athletes from across the country to compete in 16 Olympic-style sports, with 10 of those sports being Unified Sports, making these Games the most inclusive to date. To help fund the Unified Sports programs, Special Olympics New Jersey has secured a $200,000 legacy grant through the Walmart Foundation. Funding will expand Unified Sports programs in 75-100 New Jersey school districts.
This legislation builds on federal law guidance that was issued by the U.S. Department of Education in January 2013 to schools throughout the United States encouraging access to sport for students with disabilities. New Jersey will comply with the federal law as well as promote greater inclusion of student athletes with disabilities.
“As the Special Olympics are being celebrated in New Jersey this week, we are reminded of the difference that team sports can make in the lives of children with disabilities by promoting acceptance and inclusion,” said Governor Chris Christie. “Involvement in sports instills a strong work ethic and an understanding of the importance of teamwork in our students as they participate in their sport of choice. This legislation will afford all New Jersey students, regardless of their disability, the opportunity to grow as athletes and members of a community.”
School districts are now required to ensure that a student with a disability has an equal opportunity to participate in physical activity programs, existing classroom activities that involve physical activity and athletic programs in an integrated manner to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the student. The legislation also allows for the provision of reasonable modifications or aids or services necessary to provide a student with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in any of the aforementioned physical activities.
Under the provisions of the bill presented by State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, in consultation with Special Olympics New Jersey and other adapted sports organizations, may establish interscholastic athletic programs for students participating in Unified Sports programs developed by the school districts. Additionally, the association may require a coach of a Unified Sports program of athletics to receive training specific to that program. There are already many Special Olympics Programs across the United States that are partnering with interscholastic athletic associations, but this legislation opens the doors even further with New Jersey serving as the model that can be replicated nationwide.
“This legislation is a landmark for social inclusion and Unified Sports. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience playing a sport – no matter your ability level -- and people with intellectual disabilities are no different,” said Janet Froetscher, CEO of Special Olympics. “This bill has unified the entire New Jersey statehouse around this cause and we want to see this bill multiply and see other states adopt Unified Sports and encourage teachers, educators and administrators to make an effort and ensure students with disabilities are included in team sports.”
“This is a tremendous step for inclusion for young people of all abilities in this great state,” remarked Chris Tobin, father of Colin, an athlete. “We have watched so many young stars grow through Special Olympics New Jersey, and it is wonderful to know each of them will now have these same great opportunities in their schools with all of their peers. New Jersey truly believes in the movement and we fully support it for our son and every person.”
The bill provides for certain exceptions to the inclusion of a student with a disability in physical education programs but notes that in the event of these exceptions, the school district must make a reasonable effort to provide the student with an alternative opportunity in an existing adapted or Unified Sports program, such as the Special Olympics New Jersey. A school district may develop these programs on a school, district, regional, or county basis.
Sponsors of S-2079 include Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem/Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen/Hudson) and Assembly Members Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington), Valerie Vainieri Hutttle (D-Bergen), Daniel Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex), Carmelo Garcia (D-Hudson) and Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic).