Level playing field


The federal government has reminded school districts across the country that disabled students should have a level playing field when they participate in school sports. That edict is an important step toward realizing the democratic ideal of equal opportunity for all.

School sports programs build character as well as physical fitness. Students learn cooperation, leadership, and fair play, gain lifelong friendships, and develop physical skills and healthy habits.

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Yet until recent decades, many young people were denied the benefit of full participation in athletic opportunities. School desegregation and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s helped level playing fields for African Americans. Title IX did the same for women and girls.

Students with disabilities have had an equal right to participate in extracurricular activities since passage in 1973 of the federal Rehabilitation Act. But that guarantee often proved more theoretical than real when it came to sports.

Many school districts ignored the federal law. They thought that making accommodations for student athletes with disabilities was too expensive, would give opponents an unfair advantage, or would diminish their athletic programs.

As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last week in announcing the new guidelines, that’s just wrong.

“While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes,” he said. “Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth, both with and without disabilities.”

Ohio already make accommodations for disabled athletes, and the Ohio High School Athletic Association said in a statement it already complies with the federal directive. It noted that this June, the state track and field championships will include wheelchair events.

Even so, an OHSAA spokesman said the directive means that “more disabled students would be able to compete in school sports.” Disabled student-athletes welcomed the Education Department directive: A wheelchair athlete in Wooster said he looks forward to competing against runners who aren’t disabled.

Naysayers complain that schools will have to spend billions of dollars to meet the guidelines, and suggest that districts will have to drop some sports to accommodate a few students. But athletes with disabilities don’t want — and the guidelines don’t provide — an unfair advantage, just an equal opportunity.

Examples of “reasonable modifications” include using a laser instead of a starter’s pistol so that a deaf student can race in track events, and waiving the two-hand-touch finish in swimming to allow a one-armed swimmer to compete. In all cases, a disabled athlete must make a team based on ability.

There are many inspirational stories of students who overcame physical disabilities to win accolades in football, wrestling, track, and other school sports. Providing equal opportunities for disabled athletes will result in more such stories.

More important, it will give every student a fair chance to enjoy the many benefits of participation in school sports.