It’s tough to make changes without knowing what, if anything, needs to be changed.
That’s the opinion of many local high school coaches, athletic directors and officials regarding new orders from the U.S. Department of Education about the inclusion of students with disabilities in athletic programs. The department says schools must offer students with disabilities a fair shot at joining or making athletic teams, or provide an equal alternative option.
While the directive could lead to alternative teams and programs created for those with disabilities, it also could result in just minor rules modifications to allow more opportunities for those wishing to participate in sports despite disabilities.
“I really don’t know what it changes,” said Mike Duffie, Dalton High School basketball coach. “I want anybody to come out. I’ll give anybody a shot.”
Until local schools are faced with a unique situation or determine there is enough interest to field separate teams, many officials say they are unsure what the next step will be.
of existing law
The 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act helped make free public education a right for all students, and keeps schools receiving federal funds from discriminating against students with disabilities.
In 2010, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study showed that students with disabilities participated in athletics at lower rates than those without. The study also noted that students with disabilities may need physical activity more due to disabilities hindering opportunities for exercise.
The new directive clarifies Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, telling schools “that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.”
“The recent headlines stem from a clarification letter disseminated by the U.S. Department of Education in regard to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” said Eric Beavers, Whitfield County Schools spokesman. “Clarification is the key word there. This is not new law. Our staff who work in support services and special education reaffirmed that we provide accommodations for students with disabilities who wish to participate in clubs, athletics and other extracurricular activities.”
The directive stresses creating more possibilities for students with disabilities to compete with each other and with students without disabilities.
“When you have typical and non-typical students on the same field of play, you are creating an opportunity for true empathy and understanding among all students,” said Millie Hicks, co-director of The Miracle League, a handicapped-accessible baseball and softball field in Whitfield County for children and adults with special needs. “Under the directive, students with disabilities are to be given an equal opportunity to try out for competition teams, but if accommodations are too difficult, an alternative form of play must be provided.”
All the educators and officials in the area reached for this story believe the door is already wide open for all students to have a fair shot at any extracurricular activity.
“I would hope that anyone who comes out for a team is given the same opportunity,” Coahulla Creek High athletic director Rhett Parrott said. “If they’re able to compete and be a part of that team, then I think it’s important for them to be given a fair chance to do so.”
The Department of Education’s examples include: giving playing time to an athlete if he or she has succeeded in practice to merit playing time, and making modifications to the rules of the sport to allow a student with disabilities to compete so long as it does not affect the nature of the sport. This includes using a visual cue in track meets for a student with a hearing impairment.
“I think it’s meant not to change the level of competition but to ensure that they have an opportunity to try out,” Hicks said. “Where we come in and may be able to help is the alternative they could provide.”