Wherever Rosemary Parisi goes in Mount Olive, she meets people who know her daughter, Gabriella.
GiGi, who has Down syndrome, was a year-round, general-education athlete at Mount Olive High School and Homecoming queen. She even appeared on a Times Square billboard, sponsored by the National Down Syndrome Society.
Sports have been key to GiGi’s popularity, surprising even Rosemary, a special education teacher at MacKinnon Middle School in Wharton.
GiGi was part of the Mount Olive field hockey, basketball and softball teams alongside her neurotypical peers. She also participates with Mount Olive’s Special Olympics Unified track and field program, which blends students with intellectual disabilities and neurotypical partners.
Unified clubs, teams and events often require lower time commitments than their general-education equivalents. But there are few limitations on what can be called Unified, or how inclusive those programs should be.
David May of Morristown thinks Unified is more restrictive than promised by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. The related Individuals with Disabilities Education Act makes free appropriate public education available to more than 7.5 million eligible children with disabilities – in the least restrictive environment – and ensures special education and related services.
May would prefer students with special needs to compete alongside gen-ed athletes on a single team. But Unified does not allow in-season varsity athletes to be team partners, so their background and experience with activities vary.
“All Unified has done is make it the most restrictive environment in the entire place,” May said. “Some parents are just happy their kids are active, and don’t have the nuance of what it means to be separated onto the Unified team and not connected to the other (gen-ed) team. … It did give kids opportunities to play sports, but it is not the least restrictive environment.”
Separate but unequal?
Autism never prevented Ryan May from being part of the Morristown swim team, which has included several swimmers with physical and intellectual disabilities over the years. David May packed breakfast and drove Ryan to 6 a.m. practice nearly every school day for six years.
Ryan participated in about half the meets during his high school career, wearing the same burgundy suit and bright orange cap as everyone else on the roster. Between events, he usually cheered on teammates from the end of the bleachers closest to the starting blocks. Ryan, who turns 24 in July, didn’t talk much, but usually smiled and gave two thumbs up.
“What I tell parents who first get diagnosed, whether it’s Down syndrome or autism or something else, ‘You’ll always be their parent. What you have to become is a crazed advocate,'” said May, co-founded Kids2Kids, a Morristown nonprofit that mentors children with special needs through activities led by neurotypical peers.
“If you have a special-needs kid, you realize very early on how isolated you are. They do not get invited to anything: birthday parties, events. … It’s so painful to not have these kids be involved in anything.”
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Trying to provide opportunities to a larger population of student-athletes, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced a partnership with Special Olympics New Jersey at the Meet of Champions in June 2016. At the time, there were about 60 Unified Champion Schools, promoting acceptance, respect, and dignity for all students.
There are more than 250 in New Jersey now, and SONJ COO Bill DePonte hopes to have at least 300 in the fall.
“Inclusion has been around a long time, and it means different things to different people,” DePonte said. “For us, it’s about engaging individuals of all abilities.”
Champion Schools are supported through funding from the United States and New Jersey Department of Education, though DePonte said they’re encouraged to become self-sufficient. SONJ grants support things like coach and club-advisor stipends, uniforms, travel, officials, and technology.
The NJSIAA currently sponsors Unified basketball and bowling in the winter, and spring track and field. Unified swimming will be added to the list this winter, with a mixed relay expected to be held during the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in March.
“It’s cool to meet new people and get into different activities,” said Pennsauken freshman Jeremiah Moses, who plans to try out for the soccer team in the fall.
“I bring good energy, good sportsmanship, just good vibes all around. We’re like a huge family.”
Sparta and Mount Olive were the top two large schools at the inaugural free-standing NJSIAA Unified Track and Field Championships on June 8 at Franklin High School. Morristown won the small-school division.
In past years, the handful of Unified events were mixed into the Group championships schedule, dividing teams into multiple sites.
“After 50 years of being in business, Special Olympics knows it needs to do better,” Voorhees High School assistant principal Kelly Ann Kieffer, assistant principal at Voorhees High School, the first in New Jersey to be recognized as a national Unified Champion School.
“Unified is a way to do that. The students I’m supporting would not be able to do sports or be in the play without Unified. … We have some significant (disabled) students, and they would not be able to access the least restrictive environment, not for a second. Our main objective is every student should be able to access their high school experience to the best of their ability.”
Best of both worlds
Rosemary Parisi said GiGi “flourished” once she got to high school because of sports. She loved field hockey so much, Rosemary bought her a stick, balls and a net to practice in the family’s yard. She scored 150 points in her basketball career, getting into both varsity and JV games “if they’re winning big or losing big,” according to Rosemary Parisi.
GiGi got into softball three years ago, and though she rarely got into a game due to safety concerns, Rosemary Parisi said “her role is being in the dugout, cheering on all the girls, helping the coach (Bill Romano) when he gets too stressed.”
“It takes a lot to be on a gen ed team: a lot of stamina, understanding, good behavior, good health,” Rosemary Parisi said. “You have to have a coach who supports it. You have to have an aide in the background should anything happen. If there are health issues, people have to be trained. We all worked very hard to make it happen. GiGi is the poster child for inclusion in a sports team, but that’s just because we struck it right. Not everybody can do that.”
GiGi is now 22, and just graduated from Mount Olive High School. Rosemary Parisi hopes her daughter can volunteer as a peer mentor or coach for the Unified program in the fall to keep “the camaraderie of a team.”
That’s one thing Michael McCloskey was seeking when he joined the cross country, bowling and spring track teams at West Milford High School. But when he tried out for Team New Jersey ahead of the Special Olympics USA Games, Gina McCloskey told her son, “This is your time to shine. This is your place.”
Michael McCloskey, a sophomore who has autism and a seizure disorder, wound up on ESPN’s social-media feeds after a last-second comeback in his heat of the 1,500 meters on June 7.
For three weeks leading up to the USA Games, McCloskey went from gen-ed track practice to Special Olympics practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays – often accompanied at both by senior Chase Appell and junior Wyatt Space, longtime West Milford Unified partners. On Sundays, Gina McCloskey drove her son and Destiny Gerety of Hewitt to two-hour Team New Jersey practices in Point Pleasant.
“Special Olympics gives everyone a place to be themselves, completely. You don’t have to put on any kind of show for anyone else,” said West Milford Special Olympics coach Kristi Clave, who teaches multiple disabilities classes at Maple Road Elementary in West Milford.
“Unified changes cultures if you do it right. If you find a couple of really great kids, and a couple of partners who are not involved in anything … you put them on that team, and you give them purpose. You will change their lives. Not just the kids with special needs, but those kids who never felt needed and never felt loved, it will make them all a part of something.”
Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.
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