Chris Laper was on the sidelines in the gym at Niagara Falls High School last Wednesday, yelling encouragement to his son like any other parent of a player on the school’s basketball team.
This player was different. This team was different. Matthew Laper, 15, diagnosed with autisum, was wearing an official team uniform for the high school’s unified sports team. He dad was cheering him along and yelling for him to pass the ball. While he mostly ran up and down the court with his teammates the first two games, he got the ball and threw it to another player on Wednesday. His dad was thrilled.
“Tonight was the first night he grabbed the ball. And he threw it to the right kid. It’s the baby steps thing,” smiled Chris. “Something like this is huge for him.”
This is the first year that NFHS has joined the unified league, and the school also has a unified bowling team. The idea is to pair a regular education student with a special education student.
During a regular season game at 5 p.m. today in the NFHS gymnasium, there will be a rally of sorts to emphasize the idea of the league, which is all about inclusion and acceptance, according to co-coach Karyn Morrison, a special education teacher at the school.
The plan on Monday is to get students and fans to stop using the word “retard,” or what unified league coaches, athletes and fans are calling the “R-word.”
At the game, there will be computers set up in the gym so students can go online to www.r-word.org and pledge to stop using the deragatory word.
NFHS students have joined with staff to create a public service announcement on the school website to bring awareness to how hurtful the word can be. In the video, School Superintendent Mark Laurrie compares the use of the “R-word” to bullying and hate speech. “The ‘R-word’ is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur,” Laurrie says in the video.
Morrison said that people sometimes don’t realize the impact of the word. When people use the word “retard,” they are specifically putting down people with intellectual disabilities, she said.
“We want to bring awareness to people using the “R-word” and we’re using our basketball game to get people into the gym to recognize this,” Morrison said.
It appears some students are already learning this message in a big way, Morrison noted, saying that ever since students started playing in the unified sports league, they appear to be learning a lot more about each other.
“Kids that don’t traditionally hang out together are getting to know each other,” Morrison said.
There are a lot more high fives in the hallway and greetings in the cafeteria among both groups of students.
NFHS cheerleader Kelsey Mountain has never played on a basketball team before, but she was enjoying her time on the unified team, especially because one athlete, Justin Haltcom, 17, was giving her tips on the game. “It’s nice to see them involved,” she said of her teammates from the special education classes.
For parents like Laper, it’s a kick to see his son in a school uniform, playing on a team with other kids.
“It’s a great program. I love it,” he said.