Athletic options for disabled students likely to expand
Northwest Indiana schools have provided athletic opportunities for students with disabilities for years, but a new federal order could expand offerings.
On Friday the U.S. Department of Education directed schools to give disabled students a fair shot to play on a traditional sports team or have their own leagues.
Disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs.
Janis Qualizza, the athletic director at Merrillville High School, said that fitting disabled students into individual sports, such as swimming and track, shouldn’t be a problem as those sports are already open to anyone.
“In individual sports, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped a student from trying out,” she said.
The biggest concern would be for students with mobility issues, such as those in wheelchairs, who want to join a team sport. If the school needs to establish a wheelchair basketball team, for instance, it will have to see if it has enough students to join.
Crown Point High School Athletic Director Bill Dorulla said he has coached hearing-impaired students in football and wrestling, and a sign language interpreter was typically provided.
“We don’t discriminate against anybody,” Dorulla said. “We’ve had disabled kids participate in sports like in track and field, and we do offer basketball and bowling to our exceptional learners.”
The Merrillville Challenger Little League offers a chance to play for youths, ages 5 to 18, with physical and mental disabilities. League president Ralph Gagliardi said expanding opportunities for children with disabilities is a good idea.
“We need to reach more kids,” Gagliardi said. “We need to show that kids with disabilities can play, too.”
Gagliardi got involved in the league with one of his sons, who has Down syndrome. His son loved playing in the league, and it helped his being accepted by kids without disabilities.
The Department of Education order could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms. It isn’t clear whether the new guidelines will spark a sudden uptick in sports participation. There was a large increase in female participation in sports after Title IX instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams. That led many schools to cut some men’s teams, arguing that it was necessary in order to pay for women’s teams.
In the past, Merrillville has hosted sports teams for disabled students, including giving them practice times, officials to oversee the games and uniforms, Qualizza said. Even in those cases, though, the students were not in wheelchairs.
Qualizza said she could see Merrillville working with other schools to create one team. For instance, Lake County could have a team for disabled students, and Porter County might have its own, she said.
She said it would also depend on if Indiana High School Athletic Association decides to leave the responsibility for creating these teams entirely up to the individual schools.
“I doubt there’s an athletic director around who says we’re not doing that,” Qualizza said. “If it’s something we have to do, then we have to figure out a way.”
IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said the organization believes in the value of athletic participation for all students.
“It adds value to their educational experience,” Cox said.
Cox said any new IHSAA offerings wouldn’t supplant programs already offered by organizations like the Special Olympics and Paralympics.
“If we can augment current offerings, we will be working toward that end,” Cox said.
Cox said the cost factor is something that always needs to be considered as opportunities are developed.
“We don’t want to create a financial hardship for school districts,” Cox said.
Access to athletics a right
Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools may not exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
Federal laws, including the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, require states to provide a free public education to all students and prohibit schools that receive federal money from discriminating against students with disabilities. Going further, the new directive from the Education Department’s civil rights division explicitly tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.
The department suggests minor accommodations to incorporate students with disabilities onto sports teams. For instance, track and field officials could use a visual cue for a deaf runner to begin a race.
Some states already offer such programs. Maryland, for instance, passed a law in 2008 that required schools to create equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education programs and play on traditional athletic teams. And Minnesota awards state titles for disabled student athletes in six sports.
Some cautioned that progress would come in fits and starts initially.
“Is it easy? No,” said Brad Hedrick, director of disability services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and himself a hall-of-famer in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. “In most places, you’re beginning from an inertial moment. But it is feasible and possible that a meaningful and viable programming can be created.”
Staff writer Teresa Auch Schultz and AP contributed.