Disabled, but Striding Hard for Equal Opportunity ; Not Fully Able-Bodied, They Seek to Compete with Those Who Are

By Pilon, Mary | International Herald Tribune, January 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Disabled, but Striding Hard for Equal Opportunity ; Not Fully Able-Bodied, They Seek to Compete with Those Who Are


Pilon, Mary, International Herald Tribune


High schools and youth sports organizations throughout the United States are grappling with new and unusual challenges in finding ways to accommodate children with disabilities.

Some disabled children are experiencing their own Oscar Pistorius moments -- not barrier-breaking performances in the Olympic Games, but rather battles with sports officials over whether and how disabled athletes should be accommodated in competitions with able- bodied athletes.

With his ascent as a world-class runner, Pistorius, a double- amputee from South Africa, raised thorny questions about the distinction between disabled and able-bodied athletes. He was ultimately allowed to compete in last summer's London Games after prevailing in a legal dispute that reached the sports world's highest court.

High schools and youth sports organizations throughout the United States are grappling with similarly new and unusual challenges in finding ways to accommodate children with disabilities.

Should a starting light be used rather than a starting gun for a deaf athlete? Should a swimmer with one arm be allowed to touch the end of the lane with his head instead of his hand? Should a track athlete in a wheelchair be allowed to use arm strength rather than leg muscles to propel toward the finish line?

U.S. laws have long provided guidance on what children with disabilities are legally entitled to during the school day. But in practice, what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" or "equal opportunity" under the law has become widely debated when it comes to after-school sports.

The number of cases involving disabled children and sports are not officially tracked by disability groups, but lawyers, advocates and officials say they are encountering more questions regarding inclusion. The increase in interest in the area has prompted the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to prepare guidelines regarding children with disabilities and sports.

"The courts have made it a gray area when it comes to the question of what exactly is reasonable accommodation in sports," said Perry A. Zirkel, an education law professor at Lehigh University.

A tennis player in Arizona found herself in that gray area when she was a sophomore. Kiara Chapple of Mesa, Arizona, started taking tennis lessons when she was in middle school with the goal of making it onto her high school team and into tournament play. Deaf since birth, Chapple relied on an interpreter who stood on the sidelines to sign the score, calls from other players and communication related to the game with her hearing doubles partner.

Chapple said she was surprised when, during a doubles tournament during her sophomore year in 2009, her interpreter was taken away after complaints from a coach on the opposing team. Chapple and her teammate's lead faded with the interpreter gone. They lost the match.

Chapple, with the aid of the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a legal complaint against the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

"I thought it was unfair," Chapple said. "They were discriminating and I have rights to an interpreter. I felt sad. We lost the match and I couldn't communicate with anyone."

Many laws pertaining to Americans with disabilities are U.S. mandates, but the financial burden may fall on local school districts, many of which are battling budget crises. Coaches can also feel inadequate, in terms of how to adapt sports for disabled athletes and ensure safe playing conditions.

"This is all new to everybody," said Douglas Lipscomb, the varsity boys basketball coach at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia. Lipscomb has not had disabled athletes on his team, but some opponents have.

"As a coach, you're worried about safety issues for all players, especially with basketball as a contact sport. But in coaching, a lot of situations are dealt with on an individual basis. This is a new area."

Bob Ferraro, founder and chief executive of the National High School Coaches Association, said coaches might need special training in accommodating disabled athletes. …

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