The U.S. Department of Education told school districts nationwide Friday they should give disabled students a chance to play on traditional school teams or create parallel athletic programs to allow universal access to sports for kids.
Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports traditions dramatically or guarantee that all students with disabilities can gain a place on competitive teams. However, they insisted schools may not exclude students based on disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.
In Minnesota, the federal ruling could pose a challenge for many rural school districts. But in metro areas, sports teams often already include disabled students. For those areas, the new guidelines are likely to open the door wider for kids to try out for traditional and adaptive teams.
Minnesota is ahead of some other states in meeting the challenge, having started the Minnesota Adapted Athletic Association in 1992.
"Minnesota has always been seen as the forward-thinker when it comes to including students with disabilities," said Marcus Onsum, head coach of Robins Adapted Athletics, a cooperative involving Robbinsdale, Hopkins and Westonka school districts.
The evidence was on display Friday at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, where 18-year-old Bailey Miller and her teammates walked to the center of the gym as several hundred of their peers cheered for them. It was the first time the adaptive soccer team got to show off its fifth straight first-place trophy from the state tournament.
"It's fun because you can meet new friends and I love sports," said Miller, a senior who's participated in adaptive soccer, floor hockey and softball since eighth grade. "I enjoy it a lot."
Onsum said the experience helps the students see kids with disabilities are "not all that different." He knows the value of the programs not just from being a coach. His brother and sister, both of whom have muscular dystrophy, were on some of the first adaptive sports teams in Robbinsdale.
The Minnesota State High School League offers adaptive soccer, softball and floor hockey. "If a student is qualified to participate, they should be allowed to participate," said Dave Stead, the group's executive director.
Most major metro area high schools have such teams, usually collaborating with other schools to group students with physical or cognitive disabilities.
That's not the case in non-metro Minnesota, where schools often don't have enough students or money to back programs, which can easily cost $30,000 a year for transportation, coaches and officials.
The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association is looking to change that, trying to make it easier for smaller or rural schools to include student athletes with disabilities.
"We're very fortunate in Minnesota that we've had our programs in place for a couple of decades," said Nancy Icopini, who's with the state adapted athletics group and also a coordinator for Minnetonka and Wayzata's adaptive sports co-op.
Change hasn't always come easily. Rose Hollermann, 17, of rural Elysian in southern Minnesota, sued the Minnesota State High School League for the right to compete alongside runners in track meets 13 months ago.
"Sports is a great outlet for people with disabilities," said Hollermann, who has been in a wheelchair since she was 5 after a car crash that claimed the lives of two older brothers. "Why isolate students who are disabled if they're capable of competing?"
Told about Friday's new guidelines, she gave an enthusiastic "Awesome!" She's also the youngest person ever selected for the U.S. women's paralympic wheelchair basketball team and says she is the only wheelchair athlete at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School.
The Anoka Hennepin School District, the state's largest, has a $135,000 annual budget for its adaptive sports teams -- and most of that is spent on transportation, said Jeff McGonigal, the district's associate superintendent.
"Our school district has five high schools which need special vehicles to transport students to Andover for our events," McGonigal said. "But can you imagine the time, effort and cost to transport these students who live in rural areas, where several school districts spread over large areas must be combined to field a team?"
In Minneapolis, students already participate in four adapted sports -- floor hockey, soccer, softball and bowling, some on teams for those with physical limits and others for those with cognitive limits. Eighty-seven students did so last year.
"We feel as a district we're ahead of the curve in adding programs," said Dave Wicker, the district's assistant athletic director.
But other athletes with disabilities compete on traditional teams in events such as the shot put or in wheelchair-specific heats, Wicker said.
St. Paul public schools began offering adapted sports in the early 1990s, said John Vosejpka, the district's athletics director. Last school year, 5,443 student athletes participated in extracurricular activities. About 3 percent, 156, played adapted sports. "St. Paul and Minneapolis are pioneers in this area, and we have been doing this for many years," Vosejpka said in a written statement.
Ricky Michel, activities supervisor for Stillwater Area public schools, said the district and Minnesota already do a good job of accommodating students with cognitive and physical impairments.
"No matter what people come in with, no matter what physical limitations they have, it allows young people to be more accepting of each other," he said.
Steve Brandt, Chao Xiong and the Associated Press contributed to this report.