Coping with Adversity

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: Disabled Athletes Who Rise To Succeed

Another Story About a High School Athlete

Who Has Overcome Physical Challenges

 By Doug Abrams


Every so often, a human interest story captures the true spirit of athletic competition. The story is especially worth savoring when the spotlight shines on an athlete who is not yet old enough to graduate from high school.

On September 25, writer Laura Kirschman profiled Emmanuel Hilton, a junior varsity soccer goalkeeper at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa. The Beaver Falls Times headline says what needs to be said: “Born Without Lower Legs, Congolese Soccer Player Finds a Home at Blackhawk.”

Soon after Emmanuel was born in the Congo, his mother abandoned him at night along the roadside (“thrown away” because of his condition, as he puts it). Kirschman reports that nighttime abandonment of newborns in that war-torn nation often means death or starvation, but Emmanuel was rescued and placed in an institutional orphanage.  Within a few years, he was adopted by an American couple, a Methodist pastor and his wife, who brought him to Chippewa, Pa. because they felt that he deserved a chance in life.

The reaction of Emmanuel’s Blackhawk High JV soccer teammates this past season? Coach Bryan Vitali told Kirschman, “He’s just such an inspiration to our team. . . .  It’s almost like a rallying cry for these guys. It’s just like, look at Emmanuel, look what he brings to the table everyday” as he guards the goal without wearing his prosthetics.

Emmanuel Hilton’s story reminds me of a similar captivating one that the media reported in 2005. After referees refused to allow senior Bobby Martin to play in a varsity football game, state officials ruled that he was eligible to play. Bobby Martin was born without legs. Like Emmanuel, he won his teammates’ respect.

Opening the Doors to Youth Sports

Emmanuel Hilton and Bobby Martin may present unusual cases, but their fortitude, and their teammates’ ready acceptance, demonstrate why sports should remain open to physically challenged boys and girls who otherwise would be stereotyped as incapable of participating. To the maximum extent possible, leagues and teams should encourage children with physical challenges 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 safety.  Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.

Striking a Balance

In early 2013, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal 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 equal opportunity should also guide private youth sports programs that federal education law does not directly reach.

U.S. 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 law strikes a healthy 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.”

Good for Young Athletes and Good for America

Youth sports paves a two-way street. The media regularly reports how children with Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other conditions win their teammates’ acceptance, support, and respect. Sports enables these children to learn, hone their social skills, and develop their self-esteem through competition. In turn, these children teach valuable lessons by surmounting barriers with uncommon perseverance and determination.

In public school districts and private sports programs alike, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its finest.  Inclusion is good for the young athletes, and it is good for America.


Sources: Laura Kirschman, Born Without Lower Legs, Congolese Soccer Player Finds a Home at Blackhawk, The Times (Beaver Cty., Pa.),; USA TODAY, Football Player Without Legs Eligible to Play, (Sept. 20, 2005); U.S. Dep’t of Education (Jan. 25, 2013).