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Equal Opportunity for Athletes With Disabilities

January 29th, 2013

Wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden in high school in 2006 at age 16. Photo credit: AP/Chris Gardner

There are many athletes in the United States with disabilities who would love to be on their school’s sports teams. Even though they’re good enough to make the team, they don’t.

The law says students with disabilities should have an equal opportunity to participate. But the reality is that sometimes that’s not the case.

Why not?

Sometimes, unfortunately, there are generalizations and stereotypes about people with disabilities . And sometimes accommodations would need to be made that not everyone agrees on.

That’s what the  U.S. Government Accountability Office  (GAO) found when they did a  study  to see if students with disabilities were being given the proper opportunities to be included. The GAO is an arm of the U.S. government whose job it is to investigate whether rules are being followed and government money is being spent properly.

Based on the GAO’s findings, the   U.S. Department of Education sent guidelines  to schools around the country on Friday to help make it easier for students with disabilities to receive the opportunities they deserve … and to help give support to schools looking for guidance and clarification on how to make it happen.

Many people are thrilled, calling the guidelines historic.

One big reason leading to Friday’s announcement was wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden . USA Today reported  in 2006 that while she was winning medals at the paralympic games she had to sue her school district to get a spot on her high school team. She won three gold medals at the London Paralympics this past summer!

Friday’s guidelines will still ensure that the most qualified athletes will make the teams but that making some “reasonable modifications” for students with disabilities are also in order.

How would it work?

For example, in a running race, a student who is deaf or hard of hearing may not hear the starter pistol but could be prompted by a light instead. Can you think of other examples at your own school?

Some critics will say such modifications could create unfair advantages — that runners not used to a light may become distracted, for example.

If that’s the case — or if there’s no reasonable way to accommodate the disabled student — Kirk Bauer, the Executive Director, at Disabled Sports USA explained to HTE Kids’ News that the Department of Education advises that schools then go one step further and try to find alternate programs or events.

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Photo credit: www.whitehouse.gov

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that, “Schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, 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 to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”

Secretary Duncan also acknowledged that there’s a lot more at stake than making a team or winning — it’s also about making friends and learning about yourself … life lessons that can’t always be taught in the classroom.

Thank you to Diane Shinn at The Council for Exceptional Children for consulting on this story.

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