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Boston schools ready for federal mandate to include disabled athletes

Posted by Justin Rice  January 25, 2013 09:57 AM

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As the U.S. Education Department announced Friday morning that schools must include students with disabilities in interscholastic sports programs or provide equal alternatives, Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still said his department already allows disabled athletes to participate in mainstream sports.

“If you are able to get up there and play and make a team and the nurse and medical staff says you’re safe or fine to do so we’ll play you, we’re game,” Still said during a telephone interview this morning.

Viewed by many as the most important civil rights milestone in school sports since Title IX expanded opportunities for women, the new directive says schools must make "reasonable modifications" for disabled students to play with able-bodied athletes or offer separate programs for disabled athletes.

Still said there have been a handful of disabled athletes to play with able-bodied athletes during his tenure, including an athlete with one eye, an athlete with one arm and, most recently, a wheelchair-bound athlete who played for the Orchard Gardens girls' volleyball team this past fall.

“We never denied it,” he said. “If you are in school and want to play and want to go out for a team we say ‘Let’s do it’ and we’ll look at all the pieces that fit and the pieces that don’t fit."

Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Seth Galanter of the Department of Education said his office posted a 13-page set of guidelines on their website on Friday to help school districts comply with their legal obligations.

Galanter said in 2010 the federal government found that schools needed additional guidance about what existing federal civil rights laws required.

"This guidance that we're issuing today clarifies the school's existing responsibilities under section 504 which prohibits disability discrimination," Galanter said during a teleconference on Friday morning. "The 13-page guidance walks through the law and provides specific examples of what is and what is not required of the schools under established principles.

"We think this specific specification and clarification will helps schools and parents understand the rights and obligations."

Galanter said the focus of the new guidelines are to make sure more disabled athletes can participate on mainstream teams with "reasonable modifications" that do not fundamentally alter the nature of the sports' rules or competitive nature.

To do this, he said, schools have to gauge each individual student's abilities separately and cannot not make generalizations based on assumptions or prejudices.

"One student with a particular disability might not be able to play a certain type of sport or may not do well under pressure but another student with the same disability may be able to play that sport and thrive," he said. "Schools must look to the ability of kids not their disabilities."

An examples of a modification that does not alter the sport are to provide a flashing light to a deaf track athlete who can't hear the starter pistol.

If "reasonable modifications" can't be met in an existing program, Galanter said "we’re recommending that school districts create additional opportunities from those programs even if they are separate and different to others.”

Boston schools organize an annual Special Olympics for students and Horace Mann School for the Deaf has girls and boys varsity basketball league funded by the district’s athletic department.

The new clarification of the rules, however, could mean more widespread accommodations will be made for disabled athletes. And for a cash-strapped district like Boston that struggle to fund existing athletic programs as it is, adding new teams for disabled athletes could be difficult.

For one, Still said they would likely have to be district-wide teams since each school isn't likely to have enough disabled athletes to field their own teams. Second, Still said, his office is understaffed as it is and would have a hard time maintaining new teams and programs.

But Galanter said modifications and accommodations are generally inexpensive.

"It might be the cost of a laser pointer for example," he said. "And they can be achieved without altering the nature of the game or the competition at all."

Still is also concerned about safety. And not just the safety of the disabled athletes. For example, in the case of the wheelchair-bound volleyball player, her chair had to be padded in order not to injury other players.

“I think that’s the biggest piece to all of it,” he said. “If a youngster doesn’t have the ability to stand or to ski or whatever the sport may be, we’ll have to take a strong look at that.”

Galanter also made it clear that schools do not have to allow disabled athletes to play on a team just because they are disabled.

"This guidance is about expanding opportunity and inclusion, it’s not about changing the nature of an athletic activity," he said. "That is, if a school has a competitive and selective sports program the student with the disability does not automatically get on the team or get to play just because they have some minimal set of skills. In those cases schools may continue to select the best players as they define it as long as they are not discriminating against kids because of their disability."

Justin A. Rice covers Boston Public school athletics. He can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.

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Several reporters, editors and correspondents contribute updates, news and features to the BPS Sports Blog:
  • Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
  • Ryan Butler -- A Rhode Island native and avid Boston sports fan, Butler played basketball, baseball and football throughout his time in Barrington Public Schools. Now currently in his middler year at Northeastern University, he joins Boston.com as a correspondent for the site's BPS coverage. Have a story idea? Contact him at butler.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on his Twitter @butler_globe.
Also expect updates from Boston.com High School sports editor Zuri Berry and the Globe staff.