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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sports as Regulatory Rampage

Recently the Department of Justice sent notice that schools must provide athletic opportunities to students with a disability. In part this was a response to a 2010 report from the General Accountability Office that showed students with disabilities participated at significantly lower rates than typical students. Predictably disability rights advocates were thrilled and quick comparisons were made to Title IX. This comparison is flawed as the directive from the Department of Justice is not as sweeping as Title IX, has no social mandate, and has a convenient out: the mandate for inclusion requires schools to make "reasonable modifications". The people who determine what is a "reasonable modification" rarely if ever have a disability or are remotely familiar with disability issues in the broadest sense of the term.

How bad is the situation for students with a disability? Here are some facts gleaned from General Accountability Office. Less than 25% of students with a disability participate in school sports, 10% of students with a disability have never participated in school sports, students with a disability that attend "special schools" are far more likely to participate in sports. Students with a disability get about one hour of physical education a week. 90% of students with a disability would like to participate in school sports. The primary reason students with a disability do not participate in sports are financial. The second most commonly listed reason for exclusion was unwelcoming staff and sport clubs at school.  These bare bone facts demonstrate the Department of Justice had good reason to put schools on notice. Students with a disability have the right to participate in school sports. This is a basic civil right. It is akin to the right to an education.

As I expected conservatives were agahst. Michael Petrilli one of the nations foremost educational analysts blasted the Obama adminstration. In the Huffington Post Petrilli wrote "It boggles the mind that the Obama Administration, without an ounce of public debate or deliberation, without an iota of Congressional authorization or approval, could declare by fiat that public schools nationwide must provide such programs or risk their federal education funding. Talk about executive overreach! Talk about a regulatory rampage! Talk about an enormous unfunded mandate!" What outraged Petrilli is the idea that participation in sports was a "right". A "right" here meaning students with a disability had a "right" to separate sport programs if "reasonable accommodations" were impractical in existing programs. Petrilli instantly twists this to mean students have a "right" to wheelchair basketball. This is grossly misleading for a man who in the first sentence to his article stated he is "in love with wheelchair basketball".

I may be jaded but accessing sports for students with a disability is all about money. On this point Petrilli and I agree. However, I vehemently disagree with Petrilli that the federal government should not be involved. Without a mandate from the federal government there is no chance, none, students with a disability will ever be able to participate in sports. Afterall, it was the federal government that declared in 1975 that students with a disability had a right to an education. Prior to 1975 students with a disability had no right to a public school education--something black students won regarding segregation in Brown V. Board of Education many years earlier.  This line of reasoning falls flat for conservative educational experts such as Petrilli. He went on to write "there are workable solutions" to the problem. "Trade-offs can be considered, priorities identified, compromises made. The right place to hash out these concerns is in school-board meetings, not in Washington. And if the federal government insists on creating a right to these types of programs the correct place to do that is on the floor of the House and Senate-not in the bowls of the U.S. Department of Education".

Petrilli is concerned that "school districts will be on the hook for billions of dollars in new spending". There is no question in my mind this is wildly wrong. Petrilli knows as well as I do that without a social mandate for inclusion very little if any money will be spent on sports for students with a disability. I am sure Petrilli has been to more board of education meetings than I have. He thus knows that the first line item cut is on any budget is disability related. For instance, why spend money on wheelchair lifts for more than one bus when money can be saved by putting every student with a disability on one bus. I call this segregation; school boards call it saving money. An important lesson is being taught: disability rights and civil rights are not the same. It is socially acceptable to segregate students with a disability. More generally, sports play an important part of American society. Social events in secondary schools often revolve around sports, homecoming in the Fall being the most obvious example. If students with a disability are not in some way socially involved with sports exclusion is not only likely but inevitable. The ramifications are significant a fact Petrilli conveniently ignores. Petrilli and others, conservative and liberal alike, need to radically rethink the meaning of disability. The vast majority of people with a disability experience discrimination yet very few will ever file a formal protest or sue. Regardless, civil rights forms a crucial role in the lives of people with a disability. A firm belief in disability rights as civil rights  enhances one's life in a multitude of ways. It is not just sports we are discussing but life well beyond. It is about the social connections, perception of self, job aspirations, sexual relations and much more. Sports are merely a conduit to a vibrant social life.


Unknown said...

You are a bad cripple!

william Peace said...

Scott, Is being a bad cripple good or bad?