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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sports as a Civil Right

In the last few days I have read many stories that assert playing sports for a person with a disability is a civil right. These stories were prompted by the U.S. Department of  Education Office for Civil Rights that issued a thirteen page report requiring schools to make "reasonable modifications" in an effort to include students with disabilities in athletic programs. As I understand it, the government is requiring schools to include students with disabilities in mainstream athletic programs or provide parallel options. Many believe this is an important development in disability rights. To a degree this is true. Writing in Forbes, Arthur Miller, Art Caplan and Lee Igel stated:

Asserting access to athletic programs as a civil right is a big step forward for our education system and, of course, for people with disabilities. It highlights the important role that sports can play in the development of young people as functioning and contributing members of society. It also serves to help decrease the stigma too often associated with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities 

There is no question the inclusion of students with disabilities in athletic programs is a great idea. I accept this as a given. The real issue is who gets to decide what is a "reasonable modification"? In addition what sport or sports will be modified? What adaptive sport equipment will be purchased? I sincerely doubt the "reasonable modifications" required will be reasonable to me and others with a disability. Many compared the requirement of equal access to athletic activities for people with disabilities to Title IX. Title IX undoubtedly revolutionized sport options for women. However, Title IX did not make female athletic programs cash cows like many male sports such as football and basketball. If female athletic programs play second fiddle to comparable male programs I would suggest   sports for people with a disability will place a very distant third.

At a practical level, I cannot foresee schools being willing to spend money on adaptive sports equipment. For instance, many schools in Vermont have ski teams. Will a school be required to purchase a mono ski for students with disabilities that express a strong desire to join the ski team? A mono ski rig costs many thousands of dollars. Will a school be willing to rent a mono ski for the season? Will school districts pay to have its athletic teachers be trained in adaptive sports? The resounding answer to these questions is no. When my son attended public school I was stunned at the degree of hostility I encountered. Any request I made in terms of wheelchair access was met with a firm and not so polite no. Reasonable accommodations at the university level are equally problematic.

I believe the root of the problem is financial and the lack of any presence on the part of people with a disability. Making "reasonable modifications" for people with a disability is expensive. School districts simply do not want to "waste" limited resource, money, on students with a disability. Compounding this problem is the fact people with a disability are not involved when decisions are being made. The utter lack of representation is a significant problem. I have attended many meetings where I am the lone voice advocating on behalf of access for people with a disability. I cannot tell you how many times my words have been met with silence. Kind words are spoken and many will nod their heads in approval that in an ideal world such an expense should be made.  An awkward silence will ensue. A vote will be taken and access is always the first line item cut. The result is I am perceived as a narcissist. I have been told it is "always about you". The fact is it is never about me but the person with a disability behind me--the next man or woman who will not have to fight for inclusion. It is a lonely isolating and losing battle I have fought.

The bottom line for me is simple: the inclusion of children in school sport is a wonderful idea. I have seen how sports can revolutionize the perception of people with a disability. When I ski many people think adaptive skiing is cool. However I do not think there is the social mandate for inclusion of children in school athletic programs. Without a social mandate schools will do what they have always done--ignore the law. I hope I am wrong.


Catherine said...

Gotta start somewhere. I agree that it will be ignored just as equal access is when it can be. And, yes, I think that the equipment for those who can ski with modifications should be part of the program for schools that have it as a sport. The same with other sports and adaptive devices.

For some sports, it is not safe or feasible. And when it comes to the school teams with cuts, though adaptive devices should be allowed, it will be tough going for them to make the team, but if they can, they should be allowed and, yes, that means more battles as to what adaptations should be allowed.

Sadly, an impediment are the parents and kids themselves who do not want to participate and look for ways out. I've seen that many times.

Melanie Suzanne Gerber said...

Bill- yes.I agree 100% with your latest blog. Money does talk. You would think that some of the sports manufacturers or sports celebrities would jump on the bandwagon and give financial support to improving equipment and facilities for adaptive sports. The positive publicity would be outstanding......especially for a celebrity with a tarnished image. How about it
Barry Bonds? Or do I dare say..Lance Armstrong?