The world watched as Oscar Pistorius eased his prosthetic racing legs into the starting blocks on the track at the Olympics last summer, taking the first steps to making history as the first amputee to race with “able-bodied” competitors.
Many watched out of curiosity, having never seen it done. Some with disabilities watched because, with every step, he was bringing their dreams closer to reality.
National education leaders, in reiterating a message already cemented by the Rehabilitation Act, told colleges in January they needed to be working on creating sports programs or adapting current ones to provide an equal opportunity for students with disabilities to play.
With implementation of programs that include disabled athletes harkening back to the days of Title IX, where some men’s sports were shelved to cover new costs for adding women’s athletics, proponents say the costs in many cases are minimal, and the benefits are much more far-reaching than could be imagined.
“Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have the equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court,” says Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a release in late January.
The guidance letter was meant as a reminder that students with disabilities have a right, under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities at their schools. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, many schools are not affording students with disabilities access to the health and social benefits of athletic participation.
Jaunelle White, the director of compliance for athletics at Texas Southern University, says conversations have been had about the directives from the Department of Education, but little has been done in the way of work toward adapting programs to accommodate students with disabilities. Others at different schools across the country have said the same thing.
While some universities are slow on talks to include sports for disabled students, some already have been doing so for years. Several schools, including the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Arizona, offer wheelchair basketball for both men and women. Alabama also offers wheelchair tennis and golf, and rowing with adapted rules. The University of Central Oklahoma has a military sports program for injured soldiers, where they are kept active through paralympic sports.
Dr. Brad Hedrick, director of the Division of Disability Resources and Education Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says it’s a fear of the unknown that holds many schools back from adding or adapting programs for disabled students.
“It’s pretty common that people who have never been involved would exaggerate the implications of it,” says Hedrick, who has run his department for 15 years. “The cost of a disability sports program would certainly be no more than adding any other nonrevenue sport to the docket.
“Instead of looking at all the ways it can’t be done, look at the ways it could be done, and be done very effectively.”
At the University of Illinois, work has been done since 1949 to provide programs specifically for disabled students on adaptive methods to include disabled students. For Hedrick, who played and coached wheelchair basketball in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and was selected for several paralympic teams, the motivation is personal.
“I was a young person with a disability,” says Hedrick, who was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame in 2005. “I lived my childhood as someone who loved basketball and had no opportunity to play. And I committed myself early on to doing everything I could to ensure to the greatest extent possible I would see that young people today would not experience a similar fate.”
The need for inclusion at younger levels is necessary, Hedrick says. As the number of sports programs offered at schools across the country — and the demand for the supplies — goes up, the costs will surely go down, he says.
“We need to rethink the idea that a wheelchair is a medical appliance,” he says. “You can go out and get a pretty good racing bike for $300, but you can’t buy a basketball wheelchair for less than $2,500. That’s a prohibitive price point for wheelchair sports. If we create wider involvement through elementary and high school, the market would grow, and then perhaps the larger vendors would have capacity to produce equipment in higher volumes.”
The guidance letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights outlined ways sports could be adapted for disabled students on the primary and secondary education level. Among the ways was waiving the need for the “two-hand touch” rule to allow a swimmer with one arm to compete, or having a visual cue during track events for deaf runners.
“What it requires is some thought and some consideration,” says Terri Lakowski, CEO of Active Policy Solutions, a government affairs firm specializing in policies for organizations focusing on youth development, civil rights and sports. “Schools have to look at the individual circumstance of the athlete to see what is the nature of their disability; what is the type of accommodation that they’re requesting. From a cost standpoint, that’s relatively low and just a matter of creative thinking.”
She pointed to the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs in Georgia, an example of how easy the transition can be. According to its website, the Atlanta-based group works with the Georgia High School Athletic Association, adapting rules in varsity-level sports to fit the needs of some disabled students.
Because areas of Georgia are both rural and urban, the partnership has constructed same-sex teams and enlisted some students who are not disabled to fill rosters. In some cases, the teams are cooperative units between more than one school.
Lakowski says she became an advocate for equality in sports as a student in the St. Louis area, where she believed girls were not afforded the same chances as boys when it came to competitive sports. As an adult, while working on a case involving gender rights in sports, she realized the same things that were lacking from the conversation involving women’s sports were missing from talks on sports for disabled students.
“It’s simply a question of creating better policy and implementing what the guidance requires in terms of conducting individualized events,” she says.
And the inclusion of programming for disabled students could open the schools to new revenue streams, Hedrick says. The budget for disabled sports programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is privately funded, he says.
“These are individuals who are not invested with the university, except for our program,” he says. “They are long-term and significant benefactors. I think most institutions that have collegiate sports would probably find that there are individuals and private parties who would write their first check to their institution in support of a disability sports program who would not — and never have and never will — give a dime to their existing athletic programs.”