SM South has a chance to win the first-ever Kansas state title in the sport of Unified Bowling

SM South Unified Bowling

Shawnee Mission South leaders say Kansas State High School Activities Association's decision to add Unified Bowling to its sports roster is paving the way for inclusion. Above, SM South's Unified Bowling team. Photo via SM South Personal Life Skills Instagram.

Shawnee Mission South High School officials and parents say the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s decision to add Unified Bowling to its roster of sports this year is paving the way for inclusion.

Unified Sports, as defined by the Special Olympics, involve teams that have both players with and without intellectual disabilities.

In recent years, the Special Olympics says thousands of K-12 schools have started Unified Sports teams, along with hundreds of colleges and universities.

John Johnson, SM South’s athletic director, played a key role in working with the Special Olympics to get Unified Bowling approved as a championship-level sport by KSHSAA.

Johnson said other states have already sanctioned Unified Bowling as a competitive sport, making it a clear choice for Kansas to focus on without “reinventing the wheel”.

SM South Unified Bowling
SM South is just one of 31 schools across the state with a Unified Bowling team that will participate in this year’s state championship. Above, a SM South Unified Bowling match. Photo via SM South Personal Life Skills Twitter.

There have been student-athletes with disabilities in SM South’s history, but Johnson said they’re far and few between.

Now, there are 31 schools statewide that will compete in the Unified Bowling state championship this year, which will be hosted by SM South at Mission Bowl in Olathe on Nov. 18.

“It’s a sense of normalcy for a group of people and teachers and kids and parents and others who don’t normally, necessarily, feel that,” Johnson said. “It’s awesome, and the kids just gravitate to it — able-bodied and special education kids.”

Students like Mike Dugan’s daughter Libby, a sophomore at SM South, love being on SM South’s Unified Bowling team.

Dugan said Libby, who has a genetic chromosomal issue called Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, is a very social person.

Dugan said KSHSAA’s approval means a lot to his family because Libby is happiest when “she’s moving and shaking.”

“Honestly, there isn’t normally a lot of activities like this, especially through school for someone with special needs to get involved with,” Dugan said. “But since we’ve gotten to high school, it’s unbelievable really what SM South — and I’m sure other Shawnee Mission schools, too — do for us.”

SM South’s larger efforts

Sara Simpson, a special education teacher and Unified Bowling coach at SM South, said the KSHSAA approval is validating.

Up until now, all the Unified Sports at SM South have been the equivalent of recreational sports, Simpson said, similar to clubs that meet outside of school. SM South also has Unified Basketball, Bocce and Soccer teams, though those sports are not recognized by KSHSAA.

Now, Unified Bowling’s primary purpose is competition, Simpson said.

Simpson said Unified Bowling, like all Unified Sports the school offers, is another layer in SM South’s efforts to normalize disabilities — such as the personal life skills club for students with intellectual disabilities.

SM South’s efforts recently got the school national recognition and placed on the Special Olympics’ ESPN 2021 Honor Roll alongside 25 other schools.

“Our hope is that by educating students while they’re still in high school to not be intimidated or uncomfortable around people with disabilities is that they’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives,” Simpson said.