How Niagara Falls is Building a Unified Community

Imagine a community where people with and without disabilities live in an inclusive environment, from elementary school to college and beyond. Now what if we told you we’re building such a community right here in New York State?

Niagara Falls exemplifies the Unified Sports movement in so many ways. In this article, let’s examine their commitment to inclusion at various levels—and how other communities might replicate their success.

Cataract Elementary School

The story of Unified at Cataract Elementary begins with Principal Stanley Wojton. Wojton was a physical education teacher at Niagara Falls High School, where he taught adaptive PE. When he eventually earned his new job at Cataract, Wojton brought the program with him.

Working with Special Olympics NY regional staff, Wojton developed a Young Athletes curriculum using sport-specific skills to develop lifelong ones. Designed for children with and without disabilities ages two through seven, Young Athletes is the perfect program to serve as a template for inclusive classrooms.

But there’s even more to it than that. Using his connection to Niagara HS, Wojton invited high schoolers to mentor the sixth graders. This is beneficial in two ways. First, elementary students learn from their older counterparts. Second, when the elementary students age into high school, they can become mentors themselves, and the cycle continues.

“We want to prepare our students for high school,” Wojton explained. “They’ll be making important decisions about inclusion, and we want to ensure they’re the right ones.”

Niagara Falls High School

This is where the Unified movement truly began for this community. In the words of Niagara Falls City Schools Athletic Director Joseph Contento, “our Unified Sports Program is successful due to the ongoing devotion of faculty, students, families, and administration.”

Unified Sports started with Contento’s desire to expand offerings for special education students. After working with Special Olympics NY regional staff (along with the Superintendent and Board of Education), the program officially began—and it didn’t take long to bear fruit.

“The most observable change is inclusion within the school setting, and the change in behavior of students without disabilities to respond with a level of comfort and confidence when choosing to include their peers,” Contento explained. “It is one of the most fulfilling programs I have been a part of, and I look forward to its expansion and growth in the years to come.”

What’s more, expansion and growth go both ways. Not only do NFHS students return to Cataract to promote inclusion—they also bring it to the collegiate level.

Niagara University

Unified came to Niagara University via the classroom. After hosting a Special Olympics basketball competition in 2006, faculty worked with Special Olympics NY staff to design a course in the Colleges of Education and Hospitality, Sport, and Tourism Management. Through this class, students become certified Special Olympics coaches.

“Unified on our campus is about exploring relationships and finding the common thread,” said Dr. Dennis Garland, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Special Education Programs at Niagara University. “Our course is one of the most popular on campus, and for good reason.”

Along with students from Dr. Garland’s class, NU’s ROTC program, Student Government Association, and intramural programs are all involved. Students meet, coach, and compete with athletes from their local communities. Basketball is the sport of choice for now, but Dr. Garland is looking to expand into others, such as bowling.

To quantify the impact of Unified on the campus, students take a survey at the beginning and end of the season. The results are overwhelmingly positive, with reports of increased self-esteem and new perceptions about people with disabilities. Dr. Garland summed it up best: “The energy and positivity of our program is contagious.”

Building an Inclusive Community in Your Neck of the Woods

Now that you’ve seen the sort of transformative impact Unified has had at Niagara Falls, it’s time to bring this level of inclusion to your community. Click here to learn more.