Students with disabilities get fair shot in sports

Published February 7, 2013, in The Journal New/

The U.S. Education Department has announced that schools will be required to give students with disabilities a fair chance to play on traditional sports teams or create their own leagues, a move that elicited a favorable response from area athletic directors and coaches.

“Anything they do for the disabled is fine with me,” said North Rockland athletic director Joe Casarella, a former football coach. “I will bend over backwards for them.”

The order, aimed at schools and colleges, says disabled students will be allowed to join traditional teams as long as “reasonable modifications” can be made that won’t fundamentally alter the sport or give the student an advantage. If adjustments cannot be made, schools will need to make an additional athletic program similar to that of the traditional team.

“Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Jan. 25.

Several athletic directors made no comment, wanting to review the order further, but a few spoke on the topic. “I think it’s a great opportunity for those that want to participate that may not have had the vehicle to do so up until this point,” Tappan Zee athletic director Liam Frawley said.

“I have no problem with that at all,” Sleepy Hollow athletic director Chuck Scarpulla said.

The order is similar to Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibited schools from excluding students’ participation in athletics based on gender. Title IX increased female participation in sports, forcing some schools to cut men’s teams to fund new women’s teams. That was a concern of Casarella, who said the new order could be an economic problem if schools are required to fund a new team for disabled students.

“I just hope they thought it out economically,” Casarella said. “If you can’t afford it, do you have to drop the regular program?”

Frawley, who already submitted Tappan Zee’s 2013-14 athletic budget for review, wondered what type of changes would be needed. “If there are some things that have now become law and mandated, as wonderful as they are, there is an economic effect that we’ll have to look back at,” Frawley said. “That could result in cutting teams that we’ve been fighting to keep.”

Scarpulla said several schools in the section have “Pioneer” teams, developed for students with special needs looking to participate in sports.

The Education Department said it was not looking to guarantee disabled students spots on teams. The order was created to not allow schools to exclude disabled students who can keep up with their peers.

Nick Springer, a former Croton-Harmon wrestler who lost his hands and feet while battling meningitis and who competed in wheelchair rugby at the Beijing and London Paralympic Games, said the order will plant the seed in disabled athletes’ minds that they can compete with everyone else.

“It teaches the next generation that disabled sports are equal to everything else, which I think is great,” he said.

Though Nick’s father, Gary, said he felt the Tigers were accommodating to his son, he wasn’t sure all schools would have been as welcoming.

“I imagine there are quite a few schools that say, ‘No, you can’t be on that team,'” Gary Springer said.