Area school principals react to Department of Education report on athletic opportunities for students with disabilities

Children run during last spring’s Courageous Smiles track and field meet at Illini West High School in Carthage. The annual meet is for students served by the West Central Illinois Special Education Cooperative. (Submitted Photo)
Posted: Feb. 15, 2013 9:28 pm Updated: Mar. 8, 2013 11:15 pm

Herald-Whig Sports Writer

One of Brad Gooding's favorite days every school year is the day Illini West hosts a basketball game involving students of the West Central Illinois Special Education Cooperative who take classes at Illini West.

"It's a great experience," said Gooding, Illini West's principal. "It's a good time. Our entire student body goes to the gym. They're sitting there and cheer these kids on and make it as real of a basketball game for these kids as possible."

The basketball game will be March 15 this year, and Illini West also will host its annual Courageous Smiles spring track meet that's open to all students from the special education cooperative, a Macomb-based organization that serves 20 school districts in Hancock, Henderson, Fulton, McDonough and Schuyler counties.

Gooding admits he isn't sure whether the basketball game and track meet those would satisfy the U.S. Department of Education, which released a 13-page document last month reminding schools of their legal obligation to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in athletics or present opportunities for students with disabilities to compete on their own teams.

Those guidelines stem from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which also guides a school's classroom obligations for educating disabled students.

The Department of Education's missive was prompted by a 2010 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said public schools were not giving students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular athletics.

Gooding and several other area school administrators said they believe that their schools are already meeting the legal requirements for athletic opportunities for students with disabilities and that they don't know what, if any, impact the Department of Education's January report will have on them.

"Those are the things that we're doing right now to try to make these kids feel included," Gooding said, referencing the basketball game and track meet. "Now I guess if something comes down from the powers that be that we've got to do something else, I don't know what direction we'll go in."


Exercising common sense

The Department of Education's report noted that schools are not required to guarantee students with disabilities a spot on selective or competitive teams, nor do schools have a legal requirement to offer students with disabilities equal playing time if they are on an athletic team.

Rather, the department stressed that a school's selection criteria for a sport cannot be discriminatory against students with disabilities. The department gave a hypothetical example of how it would violate the law for a coach to not play an athlete with a learning disability because the coach believes that all students with that particular learning disability would not be able to perform successfully.

Also, the report stated that modifications should be made where necessary to give disabled athletes an equal opportunity to participate, "unless the school district can show that doing so would be a fundamental alteration to its program."

The department offered the example of providing visual starting cues for a track athlete with a hearing impairment.

"It looks like as long as you're trying to exercise common sense, (schools will be OK)," said Ryan Sharkey, principal of Hannibal (Mo.) High School.

Sharkey added that Hannibal has students with disabilities competing in athletics and that he can't foresee the Education Department's January document resulting in any changes at Hannibal.

"I feel we've already been doing what has been suggested," he said.

Quincy High School Principal Danielle Edgar and Quincy Notre Dame High School Principal Mark McDowell feel the same way.

"We have a lot of students with disabilities already participating on athletic teams," Edgar said. "At the same time, we do have athletic programs that have to have tryouts and cut students every single year. So disability or nondisability, not making a team is a disappointing thing to any kid."

Section 504 protects the rights of students with disabilities attending schools that receive federal financial assistance. McDowell said he isn't sure whether QND would fall into that category, because the only federal financial assistance QND receives is through its cafeteria program. However, McDowell said QND's goal is "to provide as many opportunities for as many students as possible."

"Anytime you have a student with a disability or otherwise, the benefits that they get belonging to a team and being able to compete are many, whether it's physical or social and the psychological benefits," he said. "That's something I believe everybody should have the opportunity to experience."


More opportunities, more costs

McDowell, Edgar, Sharkey and Gooding all said they are not aware of their respective schools receiving any complaints about a lack of equal athletic opportunity for students with disabilities during their time as administrators,.

Yet, if the Education Department deemed that separate programs for disabled students needed to be started -- such as wheelchair basketball -- all four administrators expressed concerns about the feasibility because of the difficulty of finding enough students to participate.

There's also concern over the costs of adding separate athletic programs for students with disabilities.

"Anytime you're looking at creating additional opportunities for kids, there's an expense associated with that," Edgar said. "I think there are tons of things that we want to offer to all kids here, and right now finances would be a difficulty."

Gooding noted that schools' budgets are already tight for academic and athletic needs and that the Education Department's January document "forces you to evaluate everything and see where your money is being spent."

Bill Pumo, West Central Illinois Special Education Cooperative director, said the cooperative provides direct on-site programs or indirect services to almost 3,000 people with disabilities, from pre-kindergartners through 21-year-olds. Overall, Puma believes that all the school districts he works with already provide equal opportunities for disabled athletes.

"We've had students identified as being on the autism spectrum play basketball," he said. "We've had students identified with emotional disturbance play football. We already do this."

Pumo, who has been involved with cooperative for 35 years, agreed with the school administrators that creating teams specifically designed for students who have disabilities could be problematic because of a numbers game.

"We'd be stretching it to try to find a team of students who are physically impaired," he said. "If there was some way to get a team, I'd sure try. We need equal rights for people with disabilities, but there needs to be enough of them. I think we do a nice job now."

The Education Department's report offered guidance on how to provide opportunities for disabled athletes when it is not possible for a school to field a full team. Its suggestions included developing regional teams as opposed to school-based teams, combining male and female athletes on one team, and offering allied sports teams on which students with disabilities would participate with nondisabled students.

The department also urged schools to work with community organizations to increase athletic opportunities for disabled students outside the school's existing extracurricular athletic program.

Pumo said the Rushville-Industry School District works directly with the Special Olympics to provide ample athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. That, plus Illini West's annual basketball game and track meet for students with disabilities, are good examples of how school districts can work with outside organizations to make sure students with disabilities get to experience athletics, he said.

"That (Illini West) district is a perfect example of how the community, the school district and the special ed co-op can collaborate," Pumo said.