“Unified” is a unique word.

Unified means “as one” or “the bringing together, the coming together of things, especially people.” Unified implies symbiosis and equality and inclusion.


A collaboration of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and Special Olympics, the sport of Unified Track and Field is growing in popularity across the state. (Provided photo)

The ELCO track and field program exemplifies what it means to be unified. The Raiders’ unified track and field team brings together student-athletes who have disabilities and student-athletes who don’t, it provides everyone with a chance to compete, and it teaches everybody the importance of being different.

“Unified sports are for students with disabilities who don’t always have opportunities that other students have,” said ELCO unified track and field coach Megan Worley. “It’s kids with disabilities working with kids who don’t, and they form friendships. Unified athletes get to represent their high school and they get to earn varsity letters. When you go to a unified track and field meet, it’s a great event. Everybody is rooting with everyone else. It’s an absolutely amazing experience.”

This spring, 14 ELCO student-athletes competed on the Raiders’ Unified Track and Field squad. (Provided photo)

ELCO’s unified track and field team is made up of 14 student-athletes, grades 9 through 12, who live in eastern Lebanon County. It regularly practices and competes alongside – and independently of – the Raiders’ varsity track and field team.

Unified student-athletes compete in the 100-meter dash, the 400- and 800-meter runs and two relay events on the track, and the shot put, the mini javelin and the long jump in the field. While the competition piece remains extremely important, a greater emphasis is placed on participation.

“It’s important for students with disabilities to be part of a team,” said Worley. “Just seeing they have strengths they might not have known they have and being able to showcase them. You have disabilities but it doesn’t define who you are. It’s about realizing you can do what others do. You can do what other people do, but you do it differently.”

The athletic interaction that occurs between students with disabilities, and with students without disabilities, creates learning opportunities that can’t be duplicated anywhere else – in the classroom or in life. In addition to problem solving, teamwork and the importance of a work ethic, everyone learns acceptance, empathy and how to break down barriers.

“Everybody has their own reasons for participation; something draws them into it,” said Worley. “When you watch the kids interact, they don’t put labels on each other. They’re getting to know each other. When you see the interactions and the high fives, that’s acceptance. Just because someone does something differently than you doesn’t mean they’re different from you. It’s a whole inclusion piece. Maybe it’s a way to open someone’s eyes.”

“When you first start to get to know something about someone there’s a little awareness,” she added. “When you realize you have things in common it’s like, ‘I like what you like and now we can start having a conversation.”

The unified program is based on the belief that all athletes should have equal access to competition. (Provided photo)

A collaboration between Special Olympics and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, unified sports is starting to pick up momentum in the state and now has found its way into Lebanon County. ELCO is in its first year of sponsoring a unified sport, which is believed to be the first of its kind in track and field in the county.

A few years ago, the Palmyra school district sponsored an indoor unified bocce ball team.

“I don’t know how it all came about,” said Worley, of Annville. “I think (ELCO athletic director Tom) Mr. Mealy brought it to the district. I do know that unified is growing and that the way they’re doing state competitions is changing because the number of participants is growing.”

Because it’s been such a positive experience for everyone involved, Worley is hoping the Raiders will field a unified track and field team again next spring.

“We hope it grows in numbers,” said Worley. “To have a unified team you have to have 12 athletes. We’re hoping next year will be a new year and a new adventure. Having the team grow would be fantastic. There are other opportunities we could start looking at.

“Unified sports should be in everything,” she continued. “It gives everybody an opportunity. We are looking at strengths and what you can bring to the table. We’re not saying, ‘You have a disability, you can’t be on the team.’ Everybody has the right to be in a sport of this nature. A lot of times we look at a book and judge it by its cover. Unified does not.”

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...