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Patty Kleban: Sports for People with Disabilities

by on January 28, 2013 6:39 AM

I can just hear it now.

The United States Department of Education announced last week that public schools that offer extra-curricular sports programs will need to start making an effort to accommodate students with disabilities. This guideline, with the tone but not the teeth of Title IX for females, brings the issue of inclusion for people with disabilities another step forward.

I can predict the complaints. The dumbing down of competition and sport to pander to people with special needs. The cost. The impact on the other students. The political correct movement ruining this rite of passage for everyone else.

Ignorance is not always bliss. Before we start squawking about negative impact, it’s important to understand how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works.

The ADA was signed into law in 1990. The intent was to formally require that people with disabilities be given access to all aspects of life that the rest of us enjoy. Education. Communication and public transit. Employment. Recreation. Access public accommodations like restaurants and shopping malls. The ADA was significant in that it expanded access requirements beyond government programs and buildings to all businesses and services.

Unlike affirmative action (called “positive discrimination” in the United Kingdom), the ADA did not require a certain percentage of customers or participants have disabilities. It simply said that if a person with a disability meets the eligibility requirements for the job, or service, and with reasonable accommodations is able to participate, we need to let them.

Repeat. If a person with a disability does not meet the eligibility requirements and reasonable accommodations would either change the inherent characteristics of the activity, make it unsafe, or would be an undue financial burden to the agency, the person can be turned away.

Let’s say I’m a person with a disability and I don’t have the required job skills or education – I don’t meet eligibility requirements - I’m not guaranteed just because I apply. Similarly, if I’m running a youth basketball league and a child who uses a wheelchair wants to participate, the courts have said that, if upon an individual assessment of the child, I believe that including that child would make it unsafe or change the nature of the program, it’s okay to say no. However, if the child is able with minor modifications, then I’m required to include him or her. Individual assessment is the key to preventing disparate impact; there can be no policy or practice that out of hand prohibits inclusion on the basis of disability alone.

People who use wheelchairs are often held up as the “what if” when it comes to inclusion but most disabilities don’t involve wheelchairs. If a child with a hearing impairment or with autism meets the eligibility requirements to make the team and they can be successful with reasonable accommodations, why wouldn’t we want to include that child? It usually doesn’t mean costly equipment or more staff. It often means using a little creativity.

Each of the local school districts posts their athletic depart mission statement on their websites. The stated goals include words like self-worth, important decision making and a commitment to the principles of good health and fitness. They strive to “to provide students with the best possible athletic opportunities commensurate with the skills, interests, and abilities of each participant.” They identify the goal of athletics to be “self-discipline, a growth in emotional maturity, and an increasing realization of the worth of the individual.” They state “we believe that participation in sports provides a wealth of opportunities and experiences which assist students in personal adjustments.”

If it benefits kids without disabilities, just think what it would do for kids for whom society already says “you are different.”

Hardly a week goes by without a news story or YouTube video of a kid with a disability who is allowed to participate on their high school or middle school sports team. In many of these news stories, the game is stopped for a child with a disability to make the miraculous play or be allowed to come out on the field to “score,” often with the other team and opposing coach alerted in advance. Inevitably there are the post-game interviews with the coach or the kid or his/her parents who talk about what it meant to be included and to be a part of the team. Sometimes teammates talk about how they learned and were strengthened by letting go of their biases and prejudices about their peers with disabilities.

I think the purpose of the new guidelines from the Department of Education is to try to expand that “once in a lifetime” experience to a more mainstreamed and appropriate inclusion in extra-curricular athletics.

Again, it comes back to essential eligibility and reasonable accommodations. Not all kids are interested or able to make the team – disability or not. However, If we can tweak something here or there for a qualified kid to be able to play (i.e. visual cuing for a child with a hearing impairment or frequent breaks for a child with asthma), why not do it? At the very least, intramurals or special recreation programs, should be made available to all.

The model used at Penn State to include people with disabilities in athletics is pretty amazing. Former PSU women’s track coach, Teri Jordan, under the umbrella of the PSU athletics, offers a variety of learning and training opportunities for both Penn State students with disabilities and for others in our community through Ability Athletics. Track. Swimming. Weight-lifting. Although some of her athletes compete on the international field, others are just weekly warriors. Each Wednesday throughout the semester, you can jump in on a pretty competitive wheelchair basketball game with sometimes as many students rolling around in chairs who don’t have disabilities as those who do. Everyone there wants to play, to have fun and to get some exercise. It’s a win all around.

We’ve come a long way with civil rights for people – and kids – with disabilities but we still have a long way to go. This is another step in the right direction.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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