Disabled Children, School Sports, and Why Government is the Problem

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January 28, 2013

As in all collective solutions to individual problems, this directive WILL NOT WORK. Students with disabilities must be addressed as individuals, their needs met through accommodations to physical space, transportation and ambulation, and modifications to curriculum that make learning meaningful for them.

2wheelchair race

The U.S. Department of Education has effectively blasted into space and now dwells on some planet where laws of earthly reality don’t apply. Just days ago the Assistant Secretary to the Office of Civil Rights at the DoE issued a letter to “colleagues” that reads like a wordy essay a 4th grader would write, titled “If I was King of the World, I Would…” Assistant Secretary Seth Galanter, it appears, has never been in a classroom, and has never, ever interacted with students with disabilities.

In his letter [PDF] Galanter directs school districts across the country–under the threat of withholding federal funding–to mainstream student athletes with disabilities into extracurricular sports programs.  A lot of squishy language is used–and squishy language in the pen of a bureaucrat is a very dangerous thing–such as “provide for opportunities,” and “qualified student with a disability.” But the creepily intimate “Dear Colleague” opening and the nebulous wording of this directive spell nothing but trouble for school administrators everywhere. Galanter’s letter doesn’t define what it means to be “qualified,” nor does it account for the huge spectrum of disabilities that our special needs population may have; from mild Asperger’s Syndrome to Traumatic Brain Injury which leads to complete immobilization. But with this directive, every school in the country that has a sports program will be forced to accommodate any child with a disability–or his parents–who displays an interest in being on a team.

I’ve spent most of my educational career as a Special Education teacher, and I have served kiddos with a huge variety of disabilities. It is this kind of directive coming from a non-educator in D.C. that makes me want to pull my hair out. The Department of Education directive, dated January 25, is being regarded by some as a breakthrough in educational civil rights that provides ‘equal opportunities’ to students with disabilities. The whole thing is a sham. With few exceptions–and there are a few–an individual student with a disability will never be be able to live up to the standards expected of a school athlete from the typical population. This directive does, however, give an onerous federal agency immense power over schools, their athletic programs, and their Special Education departments and teachers. The expectation that schools comply with something that has the potential to completely alter–and sometimes eliminate–school athletics, bodes poorly for those programs and students who believe that school sports should be played to win.

I’m not an ogre, quite the opposite, I love my students. I have a passion for Special Education. But my background and real-world interactions with special-needs kiddos and their parents is what causes me to shudder at the implications of Seth Galanter’s directive. As in all collective solutions to individual problems, this directive WILL NOT WORK. Students with disabilities must be addressed as individuals, their needs met through accommodations to physical space, transportation and ambulation, and modifications to curriculum that make learning meaningful for them. This process of ensuring these students participate meaningfully in school can be time-consuming and very expensive. The amount of money spent per pupil for a child with disabilities can be many times that of a child within the typical population. Most of this expense goes to ensure compliance with federal and state mandates. It is the passionate and devoted teacher who, on top of bureaucracy, medical needs, and general education considerations, instructs disabled students appropriately, and prepares them socially to navigate a complex and unforgiving world. The vast majority–again with a few exceptions–of students with disabilities would require such services, or similar supports, to participate in school athletics. Just picture for a moment the accommodations a student in a wheelchair would need to participate in volleyball or soccer, or the support required for a child with hearing or vision impairments to play baseball. I have 20 years of interacting with and supporting such children and I simply cannot envision how this would work successfully in every school in the country.


Challenger Baseball is a gem of a program that has gained steam and is popping up franchises all over the country. This league is exclusive for children with special needs. The game is modified so that every child, including those profoundly disabled in wheelchairs, can play. The Challenger League recruits volunteers, usually student athletes from local colleges or high schools, to assist each child on the teams. The season is limited to about 8-10 weeks, the games are shortened, and Challenger Baseball games are among the most fun and heartwarming events I have ever enjoyed.

The Special Olympics, now decades old, has done more than any other organization to socially integrate and de-stigmatize individuals with disabilities. Special Olympics, unlike the Paralympics, is reserved for children and adults who are generally served by Special Educators and those who assist developmentally delayed adults. The Special Olympics are designed with accommodations and supports in place to ensure the full participation for all individuals with disabilities. Everyone is given the best chance possible to compete, and place ribbons are given to all children, regardless of how high they place. Yes, 7th place gets a ribbon too.

Adapted Physical Education programs are available in most school districts. These A.P.E. programs provide children with disabilities opportunities to move, play modified games and sports, and in some cases, explore their athletic gifts. Adapted–or Adaptive–P.E. has been around for many years. It is a safe, inexpensive, and viable way to ensure athletic participation on the parts of special-needs kiddos.

Adapted P.E., Special Olympics and Challenger Baseball, to name a few examples of excellent athletics programs for the disabled, are to be lauded for already doing what the recent Department of Education directive will attempt to force upon schools. The problem is, schools are not equipped and funded to do this. Tragically, in many cases, school athletic programs will have no choice but to close their doors when requests for participation by students with disabilities become unmanageable. Galanter’s directive will not add to the existing organizations that provide thrilling and enriching opportunities for kiddos with disabilities, but it will negatively impact student athletics across the board. My greatest concern is that when schools try and fail to implement this directive, student athletes, their advisers, and booster parents, with resent the students with disabilities who want to play sports.

As Ronald Reagan wisely said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The Department of Education, with its latest convoluted and unrealistic directive, will do nothing nothing to better the lives or further the civil rights of students with disabilities. Most states have comprehensive laws that protect the disabled, and require that schools provide a full and meaningful education. But Special Education is not a collective problem that can be solved with a “Dear Colleague” from a Washington bureaucrat. The needs of our students with disabilities are best met one teacher, one school, one district at a time. The best educational, social, and athletic opportunities already exist. Cooperative efforts between teachers, parents, and community organizations don’t require wonkish directives from D.C. Our ‘special’ athletes will not benefit from the threats made by a government agency to their school sports programs. We will all be a lot better off handling the needs of our students with disabilities one case at a time, one heart at a time.

by Marjorie Haun  1/28/13

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