By Devin Golden and Christopher Smith
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.”
Change is not automatic. The directive doesn’t require schools to include students with disabilities on their teams. Schools still can “cut” players. It also prohibits schools from creating an uneven playing field the other way, modifying the rules of the sport to create an advantage for those with disabilities.
If the student is good enough to make the team, then he or she should make it. If the student is good enough to play, then the coach should let him or her play, and the disability should not affect any decision.
But there are some situations where it might not be possible for inclusion with students without disabilities.
“That would be the thing I would wonder,” Northwest Whitfield football coach Josh Robinson said. “Let’s say you had a deaf child who wanted to play football. They could, but there would definitely be holdbacks.”
Therefore, it’s tough for coaches and officials to know exactly what must be changed. North Murray High football coach David Gann said he agrees with the act “100 percent.” He teaches special education at North Murray High School and has two adults with mental disabilities living with him full time. He described the new initiative as a situation coaches will react to events dictate.
“There’s nothing you can do until you get one (a student with disabilities who wants to participate) and then you make the modification so they can participate,” said Gann.
Even Hicks, a staunch supporter of including students with disabilities in athletic programs, did not know any changes local schools need to make right away.
“Even in Miracle League, we deal with such a wide range of disabilities. It is tough to know what to do until you have a student with those needs,” she said. “It is tough to form a team or an alternative until you know what you are faced with. I think that will be the challenging part.”
At the college level, the chances of a student with disabilities being qualified to make a varsity-level team are much lower. According to the NCAA, about 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. Only 5.7 percent of all high school football players will ever compete at the collegiate level, including institutions from Division III to the Bowl Championship Series. In baseball, 6.1 percent make the jump from high school to college. In men’s soccer, it is 5.5 percent. For basketball, it drops to 3 percent for boys and 3.3 percent for girls.
The directive emphasizes inclusion in intramurals or club teams more than NCAA- or NAIA-sanctioned programs.
“It seems like the college emphasis would be on the club and intramural level,” said Derek Waugh, Dalton State College’s athletic director. “So I’m not really sure if it’ll ever become applicable to intercollegiate athletics.
“I think everyone should have the chance to participate in a sport, regardless of disabilities.”
Title IX is a law most famous for requiring schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to women as they do for men. Before, there was an uneven playing field for females, who had to compete for finances and attention against male sports teams. Now, similar advances are possible with respect to disabled athletes if alternate leagues are created.
If including students with disabilities on teams is not possible, but enough want to participate, then schools, districts or regions are expected to create parallel athletic programs with similar financial support as those already in place.
Beverly Vaughn is the director of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), an Atlanta-based organization that works with schools to form leagues for students with physical disabilities. She said there are options through the organization and the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) to get disabled students involved in sports, whether it is on the student’s school team or on a regional team.
“I think if a parent or student went to the school system, the school system is responsible to set something up,” Vaughn said. “I think schools need to become aware of the guidelines and become familiar with them. If they want to be proactive, they could identify students who qualify for programs. They could contact the AAASP for initial meetings and begin planning things in a measured way that doesn’t overwhelm the schools.”
Some states already are a step ahead, according to The Associated Press. Maryland passed a law in 2008 with a similar focus — equal opportunities for students with disabilities to compete on mainstream athletic programs. Minnesota has at least four leagues with students with disabilities mixed with those without them, including a floor hockey league with around 1,700 participants and specific rules designed to create an even playing field.
Ralph Swearngin, GHSA executive director, said Georgia is in “pretty good shape” with creating leagues for students with disabilities.
“Part of the problem is everyone needs to be more aware,” he said. “Disabled students and parents of disabled students know that it’s a big jump for students who want to try something new, so we try to encourage to get them involved. Student administrators and coaches could always be more aware, but overall I think Georgia schools are pretty good when it comes to addressing this.”
The GHSA offers wheelchair track and field, while the AAASP offers wheelchair basketball, wheelchair football and wheelchair handball, Vaughn said; the two organizations work together in a “dual-governing alliance.”
For wheelchair track, school teams compete against one another in meets and submit each athlete’s times to a statewide list. The top eight times in each event go on to the state tournament — boys in Jefferson and girls in Albany.
“If they don’t have wheelchair athletes to face at a different school, they run the race anyways and they submit their times for possibility of state tournaments,” Swearngin said.
For wheelchair basketball, different schools combine to form regional teams. After the regular season, there is a tournament with the finals in Macon.
“There are some places that draw players from five or six counties,” Swearngin said. “They might have to drive a bit of a distance, but if there is a group of students or parents interested in organizing that sort of thing, they can. The first step would be to contact the people at AAASP. They would put them together with other people and work to form a team.”
It’s tough to know how such a framework would work here because it’s unclear how many participants there might be.
“One of the biggest questions is how many kids would you actually have to field a team,” Southeast Whitfield athletic director Mark Lentych asked.
Said Swearngin, “Part of the problem is that schools usually don’t have enough disabled students to start a team, unless they have individual sports like track or wheelchair tennis. You have to get enough kids together for a sport.”
It’s also tough to gauge due to the rural nature of the area, Vaughn said. She estimates the closest team in any of the sports offered is in Gwinnett County.
“I think that is true, a little more of a challenge,” she said. “It just takes a little more planning. Dalton, Chatsworth, that area, hopefully they would want to get involved and get some programs going.”