Beau Doherty sat inside the recreation hall at Dever State School in Taunton, Mass., in the summer of 1977, watching his charges, the men with intellectual disabilities they called "clients," bowling.
They were good, Doherty thought, better than many people he knew outside the state institution. Why couldn't they bowl at the local bowling alley, in a league even, with people without disabilities?
From that seed grew the idea of Unified Sports, in which a partner without disabilities plays on the same team as an athlete with intellectual or physical disabilities. The first program began in Massachusetts about a dozen years later.
In 1992, Doherty, who now heads up the Connecticut Special Olympics, took it one step further. He pitched the idea to Mike Savage, then executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, and Connecticut became the first state to organize Unified Sports under the umbrella of its high school athletic federation.
"Mike [Savage] was far ahead in his world," said Doherty, 58, of Chester. "He only wanted to do an inclusionary [program]. He didn't want to do a segregated one."
One elementary school and one middle school signed up the first year. This year, in Connecticut, 90 high schools, 50 middle schools and 35 elementary schools have Unified Sports programs. There is even a program for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.
High school athletic organizations in other states are looking to follow Connecticut's lead. In January, the U.S. Department of Education issued an initiative to schools nationwide to clarify their obligation to provide opportunities for students with disabilities who want to participate in extracurricular athletics.
"We hope that the [student] partners who are involved … the goal would be that these are the future leaders, CEOs of companies and government positions," said one of Middletown High School's Unified coaches, Kelly Griffin. "If they, already at a young age, have been open to the idea of inclusion and are passionate about that, they will advocate for rights of the intellectually disabled down the road."
The aim of Unified Sports is inclusion. The hope is that the basketball captain or the star quarterback could partner with a peer with intellectual disabilities to play a high school sport as teammates. They greet each other in the hallways. They might sit together at lunch. There is acceptance among the athlete's peers.
Doherty said his feeling about Unified Sports initially was that "bonding would occur" if people with disabilities and people without disabilities played on the same teams. "And the non-disabled people would feel more positive about the athletes and I wouldn't be going to these meetings about group homes where the public was screaming about 'My kids are going to catch a disease,' or 'These people are going to come out and kill other people,' all that kind of stuff."
In the early 1980s, when Doherty first told people about his idea for Unified Sports, it was not an instant hit. Even Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, did not fully embrace it at first, fearing the partners would dominate the sport.
When Doherty, now the president of Special Olympics Connecticut, started working with Special Olympics in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, he coached his athletes. This was not the norm.
"It was more of a field day," he said of most Special Olympics events. "There were clowns and all that kind of stuff. I was coaching and people were like, 'Why is this guy coaching?'"
But Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968, was on the same page as Doherty. She called a national meeting for Special Olympics CEOs and program directors in the late 1970s and told them they had to upgrade the coaching and officiating.
"She changed everything," Doherty said. "We became more serious about the whole coaching piece, about the officiating. I was drafted as the coaches' training person in Massachusetts. Then I became the program director. Then I ended up being recruited here in '86 to become the assistant director in Connecticut."
Doherty had worked with people who were inclusionary in their thinking, which inspired him.
In 1983, he pitched his idea of an integrated softball tournament in Massachusetts. Shriver told him to go ahead. They met later in Maryland to discuss it, and she was adamant that the program divert its focus from the athletes.
"I said, 'People are starting to look at this, the integration of people into communities is a very important thing, yet our athletes are only given an opportunity to compete with each other, when quite frankly, a lot of them are better [athletes] than the people I know,'" Doherty said.
"[Shriver] was having a rough time with it. [She said,] 'Here's the deal, I'm willing to change. When I started this, I started this for people with intellectual disabilities. What I don't want is to change the limelight to the partners and what I don't want is the partners to dominate the game. How can you assure me that a second baseman in softball isn't going to go and run out in front of the shortstop?' I said, 'You need to modify the rules.'"
Shriver agreed to try the softball idea in a few states.
"The end game was truly to try to get our non-disabled people to feel better about their athletes on the team," Doherty said. "For me, that was it. And the fact that the general public loved us."
In 1989, Shriver was sold.
"She brought me up next to her at a big world conference, and said, 'OK, everybody, here's the deal, I've done the research on this, I want all of you to seriously consider doing Unified Sports. I think it's a good thing,'" Doherty said. "If she hadn't done that, forget it. If Mrs. Shriver said, 'Forget about it,' it was forget about it. A credit to her, it was a real huge change."
Tim Shriver, Eunice's son who is now chairman and CEO of Special Olympics International, said his mother was cautious.
"She was worried that Unified would look like a lot of non-disabled people playing a sport and the athletes being treated as a 'cause,'" Tim Shriver said. "It's a fine line. Her concern was legitimate, Beau took it seriously, and we fought through that dilemma."
At that point, there had been a shift in society toward moving people with intellectual disabilities out of institutions and integrating them into the community.
"It was all shifting," Doherty said.
"When Unified got started, it was cutting edge," Tim Shriver said. "It was a gateway experience for non-disabled people who went from being a service provider, a volunteer, a donor — it crossed those barriers and they became a teammate. That has helped the inclusion movement around this country.
"If we hadn't moved in a Unified direction, I think people would have started to move away. There were worries that Special Olympics was a segregated program and had outlived its value."
Not every state embraced the idea right away.
"There were a lot of states that were like, 'Are you nuts? There's no way,'" Doherty said. "There were states like Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts and Connecticut, which started to jump on the bandwagon. There were pockets."
After Doherty met with Savage in 1992, Connecticut became the first state to have its scholastic high school sports association run a Unified Sports program. Doherty believed a school-based organization should run the show. Karen Packtor, now an assistant executive director at the Connecticut Association of Schools-CIAC, and Harold Goldberg, a principal in the Waterford school system, spearheaded the effort, along with Savage.
"I was relatively new at the CIAC," Savage said. "I came [from a principal's job], and I realized the mentally handicapped were isolated and segregated from the rest of the school body. There was a culture that the non-handicapped kids were somewhat frightened to be around the handicapped kids. You could break down those barriers rather easily. We did it with student activities.
"I just knew it would work and work well."
Two schools — Oswegatchie Elementary School in Waterford and John F. Kennedy Middle School in Enfield — signed up the first year.
Now 175 schools in Connecticut have Unified Sports programs. During the 2011-12 school year, those programs included 2,422 athletes and 4,249 partners. Ten high schools, five middle schools and six elementary schools signed up this year. Funding for Unified Sports comes from Special Olympics Connecticut and a Project Unify federal grant, but schools need to kick in, too.
"I would say 50-60 percent of that growth occurred in the last five years," said Lou Pear, director of Unified Sports for CAS-CIAC.
Basketball is a popular Unified sport, and in the winter, there are numerous games and tournaments, catering to all skill levels. Each school organizes its schedule. Some conferences have tournaments. In Connecticut, in addition to basketball, athletes compete in soccer, track and field, volleyball and bowling.
In late January at Middletown High School, the RHAM Unified basketball team played a game against Middletown's team during the halftime of a boys basketball game between the two schools.
Makenna Szolomayer, a freshman at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, is studying special education. A RHAM graduate, she was at the gym in Middletown that day with Amber Colantonio, one of RHAM's athletes. She held Amber's hand as Amber dribbled the ball with the other hand down the court during the game.
"She comes to all our games so she can walk up and down the court with this child," RHAM Unified coach Rose Kalisz said. "She is an incredible young lady. She took Amber, for her 16th birthday, to her college dorm overnight as her birthday present, to spend the weekend with her at school."
Szolomayer never played sports in high school but became involved in Unified Sports through a peer coaching class in high school. She loved it. And more important for both she and Amber, she is Amber's friend.
"I think [inclusion] definitely does happen," Szolomayer said. "Amber's definitely very outgoing. If she sees anybody on the team at school, she has no qualms, she's like, 'Hi! Hi! How are you?' We all get along really well."
Athletes get involved, too. Senior Lauren Fountain played field hockey in the fall and softball in the spring for Cheshire High, but she also plays Unified Sports.
"Unified Sports is probably the most fun I've had with sports," Fountain said. "Just the relationships and everything that I build with the athletes is amazing."
Alex Beckett, the son of Yale athletic director Tom Beckett who plays Unified basketball and runs track at Guilford High, threw the shot put and ran at a Southern Connecticut Conference Unified track meet Thursday at West Haven High. Beckett, who is intellectually disabled and on the autism spectrum, has been a Unified athlete for six years.
"I like to run with my friends," he said. "I help with the other kids and the other students."
The Unified coaches are a diverse group. Some, like Kalisz, are parents who wanted their children to experience sports. Her son, Michael, who graduated from RHAM in 2008, has cerebral palsy.
"When he was in seventh grade, RHAM had no programs for these kids," said Kalisz, who coached Special Olympics before coaching the Unified team. "I said, 'Well, this is unacceptable.' They said, 'You want to do it? Knock yourself out.' This is my 11th year coaching."
Others, like East Hartford's Louise Rivard, are special-education teachers. Rivard, who has coached Unified teams for 12 years, was bothered that her students didn't have athletics.
The Middletown coaches — Griffin and Liz Mancini — are neither parents of special-education students nor special-education teachers. They just wanted to help.
"People are always surprised when Kelly and I say, 'Yes, we teach English and history,'" Mancini said. "I love it. I'm so glad I signed up for it."
More than 40 states have some kind of Unified Sports programs, but most are not organized under the umbrella of a state's high school athletic organization.
More states might be following Connecticut's lead, though, after the Department of Education initiative, which was issued on Jan. 25.
"Students with disabilities have the right, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to an equal opportunity to participate in their schools' extracurricular activities," the report says, in part. "A 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that many students with disabilities are not afforded an equal opportunity to participate in athletics, and therefore, may not have equitable access to the health and social benefits of athletic participation."
In Connecticut, the Unified Sports affiliation with CAS-CIAC allows networking among athletic directors, principals, superintendents and coaches. Connecticut's Unified program is one of the few that has sponsors (ConnectiCare, Team ESPN, Bob's Stores and Hoffman Auto) because of its affiliation with the CIAC.
Also, the visibility of the programs has increased. For example, there were Unified Sports games at halftimes of the boys and girls state basketball championships at the Mohegan Sun Arena. On March 2, the Unified basketball team from Newington played South Windsor at halftime of the Central Connecticut State University men's Senior Day game in front of 2,364 fans.
"[The affiliation with the CIAC] gives Unified Sports credibility as a true sports program," said Brian Quinn, the youth education and Unified Sports manager for Special Olympics North America. "It creates more sustainability when integrated into athletic department. When it's given more structure under the athletic department, there is more success. It is spotlighted and gets more attention."
Only a handful of states — New Hampshire, Maryland, Arizona, Rhode Island and Indiana — have a similar Unified model to Connecticut. Several other states are moving in that direction, said Doherty, who has been in demand this spring (as well as the Unified people at the CIAC) as a speaker in other states because of his experience in Connecticut.
"It comes in waves," Doherty said. "What will happen is when Rhode Island or New Hampshire does a great job, they start talking about it. And who wants to be on the outside, especially with that Department of Education guidance?
"As soon as I was done talking [at one conference], they brought in the two lawyers who were responsible for that guidance. I could just see people thinking, 'Oh my God, maybe we should start doing Unified.'"
In June, Tim Shriver will speak at the annual meeting of the National Federation of State High School Associations, encouraging each state's high school athletic organization to partner with Special Olympics and promote Unified Sports.
"The national federation is pushing [the Unified Sports program]," Pear said. "This year, it offered an online course called Unified Sports. They are working to build more partnerships similar to what we have in Connecticut."
Doherty is not yet satisfied. He wants Unified Sports training integrated into coaching certification programs, so more coaches would be available and open to Unified Sports.
And his latest radical idea: He would like to see the word "partner" disappear.
"We've got to get away from calling people 'partners,' and instead calling them 'teammates,'" he said. "If you really want this to be inclusionary, there's no need to be differentiating. You're all teammates."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun