This article was originally written by Jillian Jorgenson and published by Spectrum News NY 1 on March 27, 2023.
An expanded partnership between public schools and the Special Olympics will allow more than more than 1,700 students with disabilities to play sports like volleyball, track and field and basketball during the school day—and will expand opportunities for students with and without disabilities to play sports together.
That will mean more teams like the Otters, a unified basketball team made up of students from the Riverview School, which serves students with disabilities, and the general education Academy for Careers in Television and Film.
“Who are we?” coach Kevin McElroy asked a group of students huddled on a basketball court.
“Otters!” they replied.
The schools share a building, but their students might not otherwise know one another.
“It gives me an opportunity to learn about, like, people with disabilities because usually I don’t talk to people who have a disability,” Omar Shuaib, a student at the Academy of Film Making and Television, said. “It also gives me the opportunity to be a leader and be able to teach people something that I truly love, which is basketball.”
Riverview is part of District 75, public schools offering highly specialized support to students with significant challenges, like autism, learning disabilities, or emotional struggles.
“Our students have been eager to get involved in sports outside of school, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them,” McElroy, the coach and also Riverview’s athletic director, said. “So this gives them that opportunity to not only make new friends, but to also compete the way that a lot of kids around the city get a chance to.”
It’s made possible by a partnership with the Special Olympics, which is set to expand to allow for 200 students, with and without disabilities, to play on after-school, unified basketball teams like the Otters. Another 300 students will be able to play on unified bocce teams.
And the Special Olympics will bring school-day sports programming to another 1,700 District 75 children.
The Special Olympics will contribute $50,000 dollars in funding, and help train educators and coaches, and buy equipment. The city will contribute $300,000 in funding as well. Officials are set to offer more details at a press conference Monday afternoon.
Last week, the Otters were prepping for their very first game, against another unified team like theirs.
“I see a lot of teammates like my friends playing and I’d be like, I want to, I want to join the basketball team so I can learn how to be better at basketball, because I never played in a real game before,” Deenesh Naniram, a student at the Riverview School, said.
He felt confident.
“We’ll do good and we will win,” he said.
Their coach, McElroy, says that confidence boost—and the bonds students are creating—go beyond the basketball court.
“Just seeing the relationships forged between our D-75 students and the gen ed students, it’s really touching. I go home and I just feel really good about what we’re doing,” McElroy said.