Meet the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association: Champions of Inclusion – and Unified Sports

In honour of Global Week of Inclusion, Special Olympics is celebrating homegrown Champions of Inclusion: Canadians leading the charge for respecting and embracing all abilities – not just in sports, but in the workforce, in schools, everywhere!

All Champions of Inclusion were nominated by the public for how they #ChooseToInclude every day of the year.

Meet this Alberta Champion of Inclusion: the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association.

Athletes high five at a ASAA Unified sport event
Athletes high five at a ASAA Unified Sport event.

Five years ago, Special Olympics Unified Sports – a program that brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team – didn’t exist in Alberta high schools. 

Today, almost 20 per cent of the province’s schools boast successful programs, all thanks to the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA), another Special Olympics Canada Champion of Inclusion.

Shanna Kurylo, ASAA Unified Sports Program Director, helped launch Unified Sports across the province’s high schools in 2015.

They started with nine schools in the first year, and now have more than 55 Alberta high schools offering Unified Sports in basketball, athletics, bocce and even beanbag tosses.

“In the first year … there was a lot of hesitation about just adding something new to their school,” said Kurylo. “And now some of these Unified events are so big that I have trouble finding venues for them – they’re massive.”

An athlete from a wheelchair tosses a basketball in the air
Athletes play basketball at a ASAA Unified Sports event.

“Every year there’s more and more schools that want to host and want to do more. It’s been incredible.”

Ian Ferguson, a teacher and coach from Airdrie’s Bert Church High School, was one of the first to get involved in 2015.

“We tried it out the first year and it was just an amazing experience for everybody,” he said. “We’ve been involved ever since.”

The school hosted its first beanbag toss event in 2016 and was named the 2016-2017 Unified School of the Year. The Bert Church Unified teams have since travelled across Canada for various Special Olympics competitions.

“The biggest highlight for me is just to see the way that it’s given kids more opportunities to be involved with one another, to engage with one another, to be teammates,” said Ferguson.

Over the past five years, he’s watched the inclusion from Unified Sports trickle into the overall high school culture, as students with and without intellectual disabilities have moved beyond just a hello in the hallway to having full conversations and having lunch together.

An athlete cheers
An athlete cheers at a ASAA Unified Sports event.

“It’s a genuine connection,” said Ferguson. “There’s something about playing together on a team that bonds people together in ways that it’s hard to replicate anywhere else.”

Of course, it also offers new and exciting opportunities to the school’s students with intellectual disabilities.

“It gives students who don’t normally get the chance to play sport with their peers to represent their school,” said Kurylo. “Some of the students would just be out of this world excited to just put on a basketball jersey.”

The impact of the program also extends beyond the student body.

“It’s the most rewarding coaching I’ve ever done in a school,” added Ferguson. “For us, as a school and as a province, it has been an amazing program.” 

“I can’t even imagine not having it in our school now.”

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