DISABLED ATHLETES PRAISE NUDGE ON INCLUSION IN SCHOOL SPORTS; Advocates Hope Federal Action Will Trigger Landmark Changes for Disabled Students

By Cambria, Nancy | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

DISABLED ATHLETES PRAISE NUDGE ON INCLUSION IN SCHOOL SPORTS; Advocates Hope Federal Action Will Trigger Landmark Changes for Disabled Students


Cambria, Nancy, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Five years ago Ryan Duemler dreaded competing in his first high school swim meet at Christian Brothers College High School.

That's because when he walks, the cerebral palsy he has had since birth sends the wrong messages down his spine to his legs. He moves not with a stride, but pigeon-toed, dragging his toes on the ground behind him.

So, in the moments before that first swim meet, Duemler said he knew he'd probably lose very badly.

"I wasn't excited for it. I was nervous and I really didn't want to be there, but the seniors were really motivating me to participate and do my best," he recalled Friday during a break from the pool at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site in Colorado Springs.

Within a week of that first swim meet, the 2011 CBC graduate said, he began to love competing. He started practicing in the fast lane. By his senior year he was captain. He placed eighth in his statewide swimming division. Now he is in training for the summer 2016 Paralympics.

Duemler and fellow disabled athletes were abuzz Friday with the news that the U.S. Department of Education had sent a formal message to schools and colleges to do a better job of including disabled athletes in their sports programs or more fully provide viable alternatives for each sport. Advocates for the disabled are calling the federal edict equivalent in scope to the 1972 approval of Title IX, which mandated equal athletic opportunities for women in scholastic sports.

In Missouri, advocates for the disabled hope the action will trigger landmark changes for disabled students statewide. Most schools don't realize they are not creating equal opportunities, said Kelly Behlmann, executive director of the Disabled Athlete Sports Association of St. Peters. The Association runs competitive athletic leagues for the disabled. Simply allowing a disabled child on a team is not the same as allowing them to truly compete, she said.

"I hope schools take the letter and go with it," she said. "We're actually behind the times here in Missouri. We have swimmers that have been truly included, and that's probably about it that I know of."

A 2010 Government Accountability Office study found students with disabilities have fewer opportunities for physical activity and sports participation than students without disabilities. The study argued that exercise was critically important to disabled children because many are at a greater risk of being sedentary, which increases future negative health outcomes. In response to the study, the GAO asked the Department of Education to provide better assistance to states and schools to address these disparities.

The Department issued just such a guidance letter to educators Friday clarifying the legal obligations of schools to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law is designed to protect the rights of the disabled in school programs and activities that receive federal funding.

The letter said schools have the right to require a level of skill or ability for participation on a competitive team. That means not every child with a disability is guaranteed a spot on a team. However, schools must be open to reasonable modifications that could allow the student to not just join a team, but also successfully compete with their able peers. The letter used the example of waiving a two-hand turn rule in a swim meet if a student is lacking one hand. …

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