This past week has been very exciting for educators, individuals with disabilities and potential and current athletes participating in high school sports. On January 25th the Department of Education issued guidance to America’s schools saying that individuals with disabilities must have equal access to participate in school sports. This was based on an idea that many of us who have participated in any form of school, after school or intramural team know to be a truth about any organized event for youth: Participation in these activities provides more than just a physical outlet. The social interactions, lessons of discipline and thinking as well as networking and social skills are key in the development of all young people regardless of their ability or disability.
Team sports provide an invaluable resource to students, one that has been proven time and again by any group attempting to gain access. There is a history of exclusion from the sports arena for all minority groups in after school sports, and though Title IX exists to prevent gender bias there is still a significant work to be done for equal access to sport by gender. With knowledge of all of this, we are still about to be witness to some of the ugliest behavior from our educational system since its implementation of Plessy v. Ferguson. Our education systems are about to lie to us.
Though many school districts will talk about their inclusive programs and how they already have teams that are inclusive of individuals with disabilities a more vocal section will claim that there is NO WAY that they can involve all of their students with disabilities. They will offer wide-eyed responses to the media and conduct focus groups and interviews and assert that they would love to help, but that the Department of Education does not understand the monetary needs of their district. Others will claim that there is no means of changing the program to include everyone. Others will even say that the mental capacity of the students with disability is simply too substantial to slow down the development of the rest of the teams. This seemingly common sense approach will gain traction on television and radio and the so-called “average American” will not understand why a group of bureaucrats in Washington are fooling with their son’s basketball or football team.
They will have made the decision that able-bodied children are better and more worthy of resources and development and time than students with disabilities.
Now some of you reading this have already made the decision that I am off the deep end. The Angry Negro is a zealot and instigator that sees racism and marginalization in any issue. If that were indeed the truth, I might forego the rest of this argument and let the issue go, but just for the sake of argument let’s examine the reasons we will be hearing over the next year as to why it is too hard to do what the Department of Education has told schools they are required to do.
The first issue (which is often the last as well) will be money. The assertion will be that the skills and equipment necessary to manage individuals with disabilities are so extravagant that it is folly to believe that any American school – short of those with specialized facilities training and finding could ever hope to achieve this goal. This argument might hold water except for the fact that the Department of Education is not requiring the significant building or purchase of equipment nor is it requesting that all individuals with disabilities have an open acceptance to school teams. Additionally, this argument seems to insinuate that all teams are funded equally. I am sure there are many high school field hockey teams that wish they had the support of the football boosters but still have to sell candy, raffle tickets and beg their parents for money to support their teams. It seems that if students with disabilities want to play, they will be doing some of this work as well.
The next issue will be safety. The argument will go something like this: we cannot ensure the protection of any individuals with disabilities on the field of play AND due to their complex condition it would be inherently unsafe for them to participate. Now I am sure that there are loads of statistics that we could quote on the safety of high school sports, but the short answer is that sports come with an equal amount of danger for all people – able bodied or not. Rather than exclude an entire group of people would it not be easier to do as we have been doing and consider each athlete as an individual? Since that is what has been done so far for the average athletes lets continue to do that for students with disabilities.
The next line of thinking will be more selfish, but at least it will be honest. Some Parents will say, “I don’t want my child’s opportunities hampered because the team decided to include that kid with a disability. As self serving and despicable an argument this is, it at least finally allows us to address the core issue behind any design to exclude certain people from certain activities like school sports. As we mentioned earlier, sports are a valued part of development and its participants have found success and growth based on this experience. Traditionally individuals with disabilities have been left out of this valued development, but they are not the only group to suffer this discrimination. Every major sport in the history of the United States has an equal history of discrimination. The fact that those bastions of White male privilege were broken were not because of any change in Black, Latino, Asians or women looking to participate, nor were they representative of any specific change in the sport itself. Rather they represented a change in access. Jesse Owens at the Olympics meant that African-Americans had access to the world stage of sport. Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball meant that African Americans would have access to the pay scale of professional athletes. Anita Lizana’s rise to a World Champion tennis
player meant that Latinos could not be ignored as athletes, and Jeremy Lin even made sure that Asian athletes would be seen as sexy when he posed for the cover of GQ. This sort of access to sports has always been held back from marginalized societies and the disability community is but another group attempting to pull its way up to mainstream access.
For those people that consider athletes with disabilities a hindrance, we can only remind them of the same fact that supported Asian, Latino, African American, and women athletes who wished to play: They are already doing it. Athletes with disabilities already exist in every sport played by so-called able-bodied athletes (and a few additional sports as well).
Individuals like Oscar Pistorius, Anthony Robels or Jim Abbot began their world-class careers as young people and were lucky to have the opportunity to play. They are not exceptions to the rule of sports, rather, they ARE the rule.
They are individuals who routinely push the limits of their own abilities skills and stamina. There is no argument that holds water about whether or not these individuals have the ability only an argument over if they are allowed to participate.
One last thing: This argument began with a reference to Plessy v Ferguson – the case that established the “separate but equal” policy that supported segregation in the United States until the Brown V. Board of Education decision 48 years later. As a country we saw the proof that a separate system is never equal, and yet one of the provisions of the Department of Educations guidance allows for schools to establish separate disability teams if the regular teams cannot be made inclusive or the accommodations would change the essential rules of the game. Now the Department of Education n has done its due diligence and provided a significant amount of guidance and suggestions in making sports accessible. Though they have provided this resource, we must watch for schools that will decide that a special shelf disability teams will be their approach to inclusion. We must not allow there to become an even more extensive sports hierarchy that continues the marginalization and low expectations for athletes with disabilities.
If we allow other people’s fears and prejudices to determine how individuals with disabilities participate in sports we are giving a tacit agreement to the idea that individuals with disabilities are not good enough. They are not good enough to play on teams, not worth the money that those teams cost and certainly not worthy of the development that could lead them to success. It is equally intriguing that denying the presence of athletes with disabilities we are also doing a disservice to the whole field of sport. By limiting the playing field we are taking away the opportunity for these athletes to truly test themselves and determine their mettle. We may as well begin to give head starts, look the other way on penalties and ignore the lessons of good sportsmanship and citizenship that we claim are the hallmark of student competition. Let us give these students a true example of sportsmanship and illustrate the qualities we wish them attain as adults. Let us let everyone have the opportunity to play by the same rules and then determine who is the winner.
The Angry Negro is a blind swordsman who has no compunctions about stabbing a bitch.