Unified sports basketball gets kids with disabilities in the game

Mar 18, 2024

Everybody wins in unified sports —a program that gives children with disabilities the chance to get in the game. Dartmouth Middle School’s unified basketball team began its season with a home game against Plymouth South Middle School on Friday, March 15. 

Plymouth South won 28-24, but the score is beside the point. 

Each game adheres to a strict “positive vibes” only policy, and everybody cheers regardless of who scores. The teams are structured according to a “buddy system,” in which the children with disabilities are paired with non-disabled student athletes who give them guidance on the court, such as when to pass, shoot or play some defense.   

And if someone misses a basket — no worries. More than once during Friday’s game, players were given a second or even third chance to take their shot while the other players waited. 

Laurie Dionisio, director of student services for Dartmouth Public Schools, said this is an opportunity for non-disabled students to be role models of what an inclusive school should look like. 

“It’s the most amazing relationship between disabled and non-disabled peers — kids with great abilities and kids who struggle,” Dionisio said. “They learn from each other and they work together. It creates this really inclusive, exciting environment.”

Ultimately, unified sports is about accepting differences and giving students with disabilities an equal opportunity to get more involved with their school, Dionisio said. 

“Often, kids with disabilities are left out of things like sports,” Dionisio said. “It’s hard for a kid with autism or down syndrome to go and join a town’s soccer league. They don’t get that opportunity. Unified provides them with an opportunity to be part of a team and to work together.”

Bill Garcia has been coaching the middle school’s unified basketball team for three years. Before coming to Dartmouth, he coached unified track and basketball at Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School. The unified sports program was created by the Special Olympics in coordination with the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Association. 

“It really promotes inclusion,” Garcia said of the program. “Oftentimes, students with disabilities might not get credit for their courageousness — their athleticism. This is a good opportunity for building friendships through sports.”

Dartmouth Middle School’s unified sports program is expanding. In addition to its unified basketball team, there’s also a unified cheerleading squad and unified bocce team that were added just this year. Unified track and unified basketball are available at the high school. 

Dartmouth Middle School’s unified basketball team will play Hastings Middle School on Friday, March 22.