In a move reminiscent of Title IX (which provided equal athletic opportunities for women), the U.S. Education Department today issued a similar directive telling schools they must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide alternative opportunities.
Playing sports at any level—club, intramural, or interscholastic—can have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life. Among its many benefits, participation in sports promotes socialization, leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. It’s no secret that once women were provided equal access to sports via Title IX, their role in society, and especially corporate America, increased significantly.
So why shouldn't people with disabilities have the same physical education and sport opportunities to learn the social value and health benefits as their able bodied peers? If you've ever witnessed the Special Olympics, you know how life-changing the experience can be.
Special Olympics Image © Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMAPRESS.com
On the official Dept. of Education blog, Education Secretary Arne Duncan writes:
Students with disabilities are no different – like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion.
I remember being appalled when I learned that the Constitution does not prohibit using disability as grounds for discrimination. It states that we are not to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, etc., but there is nothing to say one cannot discriminate because of a disability.
Several federal laws (e.g. the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), require states to provide a free public education to all students and bans schools that receive federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities. Going further today, the Education Department explicitly tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.
I say bravo to the government officials responsible for the move- it's about time. .
When my daughter was about 8 or 9 and playing AYSO soccer, a young girl named Kathrine was placed on her team. Kathrine had cerebal palsy along with some learning disabilities. My husband was the coach and challenged with a wide range of expectations - from the players (who were suprisingly competitive at that age), the player's parents (who were even more competitive) as well as Kathrine and her family.
At first, the girls resented having Kathrine on their team (I can't remember whether it was the "Blue Devils" or the "Purple People Eaters.") The other players felt she would hinder their success but AYSO rules dictate that every child plays and my husband integrated Kathrine into his rotation (consciously playing her at positions where she could see some success).
Most of the girls went to school with Kathrine, but she was invisible to them during the school day. At practice and during games, the girls couldn't ignore her, and over the course of the season, they got to really know her - as a person. She was funny, couragous and she had a huge heart. The girls also got to see the interaction between Kathrine and her parents - and realized that maybe their family wasn't so different from their own.
By the end of the season, the team had embraced Kathrine and, surprise, had a winning record. In their last game, with a comfortable lead, the girls asked my husband to move Kathrine to forward. Everyone, save our goalkeeper, moved to offense and together they dribbled the ball up the field. Once the ball was squarely in front of the net, the girls moved aside and Kathrine kicked it - scoring her first goal! I will never forget the look on her face or the tears of joy as her mother wept on the sidelines.
Once the season was over, I'd occassionally see Kathrine at school. Rather than ignore her, the girls on the team were now friendly and always waved or stopped to chat. We heard later from Kathrine's parents that the season with the team had been one of the best experiences of their daughter's life. And I'd echo that - on behalf of all the girls on the team. Everyone got something positive out of the experience - and the lessons learned will be carried with them throughout their lives.
So what does the new government mandate really mean? Schools won’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they won’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race that includes a deaf runner).
Will there be compliance problems? Probably. Will some athletes be disappointed? Likely. Kids may be placed on teams and never see playing time or they will get sent out by coaches required to play them fostering resentment from teammates. But overall, everyone will learn valuable lessons - and isn't that an integral part of sports?
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