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Senior Bailey Miller enjoyed celebrating with her coach, Marcus Onsum, during a pep rally at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School. Miller was a member of the school’s state champion adapted soccer team, which was recognized for it’s accomplishment at the rally.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Disabled won't harm sports

  • Article by: ELIZABETH R. SCHILTZ
  • February 3, 2013 - 5:24 PM

The biggest hit under our Christmas tree this year was the letter jacket we bought my son, a junior at Minnetonka High School. The leather sleeves are still a bit stiff, but they're rapidly acquiring that supple comfort that comes from constant wear. The right sleeve carries two patches for his sports -- soccer and hockey.

When I ordered the jacket, I carefully explained that my son plays adapted soccer and adapted floor hockey with the Lakers -- a joint team of athletes with disabilities from the Minnetonka and Wayzata school districts. I don't know what I thought those patches would look like -- maybe emblazoned with a red "A" for adapted? But the clerk assured me that he got the same patches as all Minnetonka athletes.

My son has Down syndrome, is on the autism spectrum, and has verbal apraxia that makes speech difficult. But though he is my third child to attend Minnetonka High, he's the first to earn an athletic letter.

So I was disturbed to read the slew of negative "reader comments" to the news article that exploded on the Web recently, announcing, as the Star Tribune headline put it, "Disabled students win the right to play" (Jan. 26).

People complained that this is an example of political correctness run amok, and that it will destroy athletic programs, as school districts go broke because of parents demanding separate football teams for the one child in the school district who uses a wheelchair and the other child with Down syndrome.

In this time of budget constraints, let me offer a few words of reassurance:

First, this is not a new legal obligation. Schools have been required to provide kids with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, for decades -- under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act enacted in 1975. All that is new is a guidance letter just published by the Department of Education to clarify how schools can meet these obligations.

Second, these guidelines make clear that schools have a lot of flexibility in figuring out how to satisfy these requirements. Competitive sport programs can retain skill or ability standards for participation, but they must make easy changes that would let a student with a disability satisfy those standards, such as giving a hearing-impaired student a visual cue to signal the start of a race in a track meet. No school has to make any accommodation that alters an essential aspect of the sport, or gives the student with a disability an unfair advantage over other students.

Third, many schools in progressive states like Minnesota have been satisfying these obligations for decades already, giving some kids with disabilities the chance to prove themselves capable of meeting the demanding criteria applied to all kids, or collaborating with neighboring school districts to create competitive adapted sports teams. I see no evidence that it has in any way hurt our thriving high school sports programs.

Kids with disabilities get the same lessons from high school sports as all our kids -- lessons in social behavior, teamwork, leadership and physical fitness. But other members of the school community benefit, too.

Coaches talk about the deep satisfaction they get from watching the unbridled enthusiasm, exuberant displays of pride, and subtle signs of progress that our athletes display. Classmates (with and without disabilities) happily share our athletes' victories and defeats, and proudly demonstrate their commitment to genuine inclusion of their friends with disabilities in the life of their school.

Like all parents, we Lakers parents enjoy sitting in the bleachers, getting to know each other and cheering our kids on, and we are grateful that our kids have something fun and healthy to do after school a few days a week. (It can be hard -- and expensive -- for working parents to find after-school care for a disabled teenager.)

Like every parent of a high school athlete, I know my son's sports activities are teaching him valuable lessons about teamwork and fitness. But because his disabilities make it hard for him to talk, I can only speculate about what he is thinking when he puts on that slight swagger that seems to come with his new letter jacket. Probably something like what most 17-year-old athletes think as they join the crowd of students wearing that same badge of belonging and accomplishment in the halls of Minnetonka High:

"Boy, am I looking cool today!"

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Elizabeth R. Schiltz is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

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