Equal Sports Opportunities for Children with Disabilities:
The U.S. Department of Education’s New Directive
By Doug Abrams
On January 25, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” The Education Department’s authority extends only to the nation’s public schools, but the equal opportunity impulse should also guide private youth sports programs that federal disability law does not directly reach. This column primarily concerns the lessons that private programs should draw from the Department’s instruction.
Striking a Balance
In last week’s directive, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that public schools “may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.” “While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team,” he continued, “students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”
Federal disability law strikes a balance. “[S]chools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game,” Secretary Duncan explained, “and they don’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 so a deaf runner can compete) to insure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.” http://www.ed.gov/blog/2013/01/we-must-provide-equal-opportunity-in-sports-to-students-with-disabilities/
Last week’s Education Department directive reaffirms that students learn, hone their social skills, and develop their self-esteem both in the classroom and on the sports field. The directive comes two years after the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities participate in elementary and secondary school sports “at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.” The Department is right that, while maintaining the essential character of a particular sport and conferring no special advantage, schools can do a better job of delivering on public education law’s core commitment to “leave no child behind.” http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-519
Applying Equal Opportunity to Private Youth Sports Programs
For children with disabilities, the rewards of participation in sports remain constant in public schools and private programs alike. “To the maximum extent possible,” I wrote in my December 21 column, private “leagues and teams should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.” http://askcoachwolff.com/2012/12/21/coaching-tips-thinking-ahead-when-one-of-your-players-has-a-disability/
The Local Roles of Parents and Coaches
The Education Department’s directive from Washington sets the proper tone and content, but directives and statutes are only the first step. In public schools and private sports programs alike, responsible local administrators and coaches and parents ultimately play the central roles in assuring that qualified athletes with disabilities are mainstreamed and not cast off.
In my December 21 column, I wrote about a youth hockey game that I coached on Long Island in the mid-1980s against a visiting team from Pennsylvania. Local responsibility was on display that morning. A few minutes before the game, the opposing coaches approached our coaching staff and the referees to say that (like the track runner in the Education Department’s example last week) one of their players was deaf. He told us that the player might throw a late hit because he would not hear the whistle and he depended on his teammates to stop him.
Without fanfare, the coaches simply did what our instincts told us was right. In the locker room, we told our team that the deaf player deserved our understanding. The Pennsylvania player did indeed throw a few late hits, but the game proceeded without incident because players, coaches and parents knew the circumstances in advance and never even considered using disability as an excuse to exclude him.
Good for Young Athletes and Good for America
The Education Department is right that children with disabilities deserve a fair chance to play sports in accordance with their abilities, desires, and willingness to contribute to the team. The media regularly reports how children overcome Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other disabilities to win their teammates’ acceptance, support and respect. Sports teaches children with disabilities, but these children also teach everyone else through their perseverance and determination to overcome barriers that teammates and their families previously never thought much about. The other day, the Department’s balanced directive reminded public school districts and private programs that the impulse to include, rather than exclude, young athletes marks youth sports at its finest.
Inclusion is good for the young athletes, and it is good for America.
[Sources: U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities (Jan. 25, 2013); U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics, p. 1 (June 2010); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425]