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Unified Sports helps eliminate stigmas, CMU study shows

Program participation lessens discriminatory beliefs and language

Contact: Heather Smith

Passing the ball and shooting baskets with people who have intellectual disabilities changes perceptions and stigmas, according to Central Michigan University researchers.

Kirsten Weber, associate professor of communication, and Jeremy Heinlein, a communication graduate student, looked at how participation in Unified Sports changes the way people see those with intellectual disabilities.

Unified Sports is an inclusive program that unites Special Olympics athletes with individuals without intellectual disabilities.

“We looked at stigma and the way we hold or have stigmatizing beliefs about people with intellectual disabilities,” Weber said. “We found that if you have these types of meaningful, close-contact experiences with people who are different from you, it really does change how you perceive those individuals.”


Weber and Heinlein found that students who participated in Unified Sports had fewer discriminatory beliefs and used less discriminatory language after they participated.

“They saw themselves as being more similar to individuals with intellectual disabilities,” Weber said.

Heinlein was inspired to pursue this research after his own experiences.

“Special Olympics and Unified Sports is such a positive experience and an inclusive environment,” he said. “I volunteered with Special Olympics and Unified Sports as an undergrad. After participating, I realized something transformative had happened. I was a different person after doing the program.”

At first, Heinlein was uncertain how the sports would be played and whether he would need to adjust how he played on the court.

“What I found was that I didn’t need to adjust anything,” he said. “My naivety went away when I realized the people playing next to me — both with and without disabilities — were there to play a sport because we loved it. We bonded over that comradery and teamwork while playing.”

The biggest stigma people with intellectual disabilities face is being underestimated, Heinlein said.

“Some think people who have intellectual disabilities can't hold a normal job, take care of themselves or play a competitive sport,” he said. “Unified Sports provides you with an opportunity to see that’s not the case. They can play sports and at a very high level.”

Weber and Heinlein also found that people sought more altruistic experiences after playing Unified Sports.

“It gave them a bug to want to do more of these types of things,” Weber said. “That is a really meaningful result.”

Heinlein hopes the project inspires others to help those who are different from themselves.

“I wish people knew that a person with an intellectual disability is a person just like you or me. But they have these hurdles that make their journey just a little more difficult,” he said. “I hope that the impact of this research is that everyone becomes a little bit of a better human, seeking out opportunities to have dialogues across differences. I hope that people become more inclusive and become advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

Weber and Heinlein will expand the research this year. They will dive deeper into the process of changing stigmas and use interviews and in-depth data to understand what moments help cause the changes.

“At the heart of all the research I’ve done, I’ve always wanted to help people and make people’s lives better,” Weber said. “It is so meaningful not just to get results from a research project, but to be able to see that those research experiences are able to capture real change that people are going through. Those individuals who participated in Unified Sports really changed and became better people because of that.”

Michigan Campus Compact and the Waterhouse Family Institute provided grants to support the research.

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