WMU News

Collaborative effort could become national model

Aug. 28, 1997

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University, Michigan Special Olympics and the city of Kalamazoo have joined forces in a project that could become a national model for increasing Special Olympics participation.

Funded by a $48,499 grant from Special Olympics International, the initiative is designed to create four new Special Olympics Unified Sports Leagues in the Kalamazoo area, while expanding research opportunities to gauge the success of these programs.

Unified Sports is an innovative Special Olympics effort that matches athletes with and without mental retardation into sports teams for training and competition. The goal is to provide mentally retarded athletes the opportunity to interact with non-mentally retarded athletes in hopes of building friendships as well as muscles.

In the past, Michigan Special Olympics and the city of Kalamazoo have offered Unified Sports programs in basketball and bowling to athletes 16 and older. The new initiative will add soccer, poly hockey (floor hockey), volleyball and golf leagues to the existing sports. The program also will be expanded to include younger athletes in the 8 to 15 year old category. Organizers hope to attract up to 116 new athletes in the Kalamazoo area.

"The whole emphasis on education for people with disabilities has changed to focus more on inclusion," says Edie Wirtshafter, southwest regional manager for Michigan Special Olympics. "This is Special Olympics' way of understanding that this is important. We're trying to move our program in that direction, while holding our traditional programs in place."

Dr. Jody A. Brylinsky, WMU associate professor of health, physical education and recreation, directs the project. She's especially excited that the new initiative will include younger athletes, a factor that could be crucial to building athletic skills early in life and positive attitudes about mentally retarded citizens.

"If those who are not mentally retarded grow up playing with those who are, we have a greater chance of building real inclusion into communities as those kids continue to go to school together and develop into adults. That to me is really exciting, both for the athletes and coaches."

A network of volunteers from WMU and Kalamazoo public/ private school communities will provide support for the project activities. The majority of the sporting events will take place on the WMU campus and will be staggered throughout the fall and winter semesters.

WMU graduate and undergraduate students studying coaching, recreation, special education and teaching will provide coaching, officiating and services as part of their own field experience. Students also will be involved in the research component of the initiative. They will investigate a number of items, including whether Unified Sports leagues actually impact public attitudes, build friendships and improve the social and physical development of athletes with mental retardation.

"Special Olympics International has always had a strong research initiative," Brylinsky explains. "It is very concerned that programs have the type of impact it wants. There are a lot of myths about people with mental retardation. To break down those myths you need not only publicity and promotion, but research showing that attitudes change and skills and healthy lifestyles develop and that this is a good way to do it."

The initial grant of $48,499 will fund the first year of the four-year project. Continuation funding will be requested on an annual basis and will be based on project needs. By the end of the fourth year, the project will be self-supported and Brylinsky hopes to have enough information in place to develop similar cooperative ventures around the United States.

"Special Olympics International is looking at us to be a model program for other universities," Brylinsky says. "It is very interested in building a network within the university communities. Universities have, in most cases, the facilities for athletic events. They have endless numbers of people who may be interested in doing these types of things. And so I'm real hopeful after four years of developing the project that we'll be able to share this and develop similar programs at other universities in Michigan and nationwide."

Athletes with or without mental retardation are currently being recruited for the fall and winter sporting activities. Additional coaches and referees also are needed. Interested persons should contact Michigan Special Olympics-Southwest Michigan at 616 383-6245.

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