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The crowd roared. There wasn’t an empty seat in the gym. The ball was inbounded to Jenna. She dribbled her way up the floor, weaving all the way to the hoop.

Confident in her skills, Jenna shot the ball and scored. Running back on defense, she turned to the crowd and smiled from ear to ear.

Without Unified Sports, Jenna would not have played basketball and her first drained shot would never have happened.

Historically, students with disabilities have been relegated to the sidelines, denied the opportunity to compete in meaningful sporting events. The recent creation and growth of Unified Sports throughout Minnesota has changed that.

Unified Sports joins students with disabilities (athletes) and those without disabilities (partners) through competition and teamwork. Minnesota Unified Sports in schools includes basketball, track and field, soccer, bowling and flag football.

Unfortunately, these sports only exist in a club setting and are not recognized by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) as varsity sports.

The next big step is to have the MSHSL embrace the movement and include Unified Sports in their system. This isn’t to say that sports like varsity football or soccer would change. Instead Unified Sports would be an addition to current varsity sports and would draw students who might not ever join an extracurricular activity.

The mission of the MSHSL is to provide educational opportunities for students through athletic programs and provide leadership and support for member schools. Unified Sports fulfill that mission. The educational benefits for students with disabilities is not limited to learning the rudimentary skills of a sport, but involves the effective way to communicate, to work as a team and to be gracious in victory or defeat. In addition, students without disabilities gain a unique perspective; they learn the importance of focusing on a person’s ability, rather than his or her disability.

Unified Sports will be difficult to implement initially because there a small number of teams in the state. Some schools will first need to create a Unified program in order to compete. The concept of Unified Sports is relatively new, but it is growing rapidly. According to Special Olympics Minnesota, before the advent of Unified Sports in 2012 there were 368 partners and 511 athletes. Whereas, in 2018, just six years after the creation of Unified Sports, there were 5,648 partners and 2,873 athletes. These athletes deserve the same recognition for their hard work as every other varsity athlete.

The power of inclusion has changed students’ lives across the state of Minnesota. One prime example is in Orono High School. Students with disabilities in Orono have competed in Unified Sports for five years and are treated no differently than any other students. The school now participates in Unified flag football, basketball, track and soccer.

Yet the school culture was not always inclusive. When asked about Orono culture before Unified Sports, senior Josie Peterson said, “Students with disabilities stayed in the corner where they had their class. They weren’t in the hallways during passing and they sat at their own tables during lunch.” Unified Sports changed that.

Jenna Perkins, a sophomore at Orono, has been an athlete on many Unified Sports teams. Her transition from not having the opportunity to play sports at a competitive level to being an athlete on a Unified team has changed her life. Jenna said, “I learned what it felt like to be included.”

The MSHSL recognizing Unified Sports is the next step in growing the Unified movement. The inclusion revolution should not be ignored. If we can spread the Unified message and teach students at a young age to be inclusive we can change our schools, our communities and eventually the world.

There is no better spokesperson than someone who has experienced Unified Sports. When asked about the importance of Unified Sports, Josie, the Orono senior, said, “If you want to learn anything about the simplicity of attaining happiness and joy — choosing to celebrate others and include is a good way to start.”

Mimi Schrader, of Plymouth, is a former Wayzata High School athlete and Unified Sports activist, and a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. The views expressed here are solely her own.