'Landmark moment' for disabled high school student-athletes

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WASHINGTON -- Students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on a traditional sports team, or have their own leagues, the U.S. Department of Education says.

Disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make "reasonable modifications" to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs.

"Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement announcing the new guidance Friday.

Bob Lombardi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs high school athletics in the state, said the organization will examine what steps need to be taken, if any, in order to comply with the new resolution. But the PIAA already has policies in place for disabled or handicapped student-athletes who want to participate in sports.

The PIAA's "policies and procedures" say the organization will attempt to accommodate disabled or handicapped athletes as long as the accommodations do not "fundamentally alter essential elements of a sport, increase the risk of injury to other participants or provide the student athlete with an unfair advantage."

For example, the PIAA made accommodations the past few years to allow Kinzey Lynch, who is visually impaired, to participate on the Perkiomen Valley High School cross-country and track and field teams. The PIAA allowed Lynch to be "tethered" by a rope to a coach in meets or races. The coach ran ahead of Lynch and was allowed to speak with Lynch while running, telling him of possible hazards on a course.

Also, a few years ago, the PIAA permitted Kaitlyn Willard to participate in track meets for the Upper Darby team while in a wheelchair. If she scored points, they would count toward the Upper Darby score. But her points were not allowed if it meant Upper Darby would win the meet.

"We've had some kids who were permitted to use motorized carts in golf because of a disability," Lombardi said.

The PIAA rules and procedures say accommodations will be considered for a handicapped or disabled student-athlete on a "case-by-case basis."

"The existing approach provides an opportunity for anyone who is capable of participating in that activity, regardless whether they are disabled or not," said WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley.

Activists cheered the changes.

"This is a landmark moment for students with disabilities. This will do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women," said Terri Lakowski, who for a decade led a coalition pushing for the changes.

It is not clear whether the new guidelines will spark a sudden uptick in sports participation. There was a big increase in female participation in sports after Title IX guidance instructed schools to treat female athletics on par with male teams.

Education Department officials emphasized they did not intend to change sports traditions dramatically or guarantee students with disabilities a spot on competitive teams. Instead, they insisted schools cannot exclude students based on their disabilities if they can keep up with their classmates.

Federal laws, including the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, require states to provide a free public education to all students and prohibit schools that receive federal money from discriminating against students with disabilities.

The department suggests minor accommodations to incorporate students with disabilities. For instance, track and field officials could use a visual cue for a deaf runner to begin a race.

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Mike White of the Post-Gazette contributed.


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