2013-01-29 / Opinion

Sports disability rule could have hidden costs

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education said that students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on a traditional sports team or have their own leagues.

We applaud this decision, as it is every person's right to be allowed to participate in federally funded programs, of which most school athletic programs are a part.

If a disabled student who is deaf, has Down syndrome, is in a wheelchair or has other disabilities wants a chance to play a sport for their school, they should be given the same opportunity as their non-disabled peers to compete on their school's athletic teams. If they are good enough to play for that team, then they should be chosen to play on that team.

While the education department's recent decision is well-intentioned, we do have some concerns about its provision for schools to create leagues for disabled athletes. During these difficult economic times, it is unfair to ask a school to potentially increase or drastically change its budget to allow disabled students to have their own leagues. While the idea is novel, the reality is not.

Schools throughout the country are being forced to lay off teachers and staff, cut athletic and arts programs and drastically curtail their budgets in order to operate with financial stability. Being forced to either shift or raise more money with the challenging economy is right now asking too much from publicly funded institutions.

Supporters of the education department's decision equate it to Title IX, which the government implemented in the 1970s, making it mandatory for publicly funded schools to provide female athletes with their own leagues in order to be equal to their male counterparts.

This decision did force some schools to cut male sports programs in order to implement the female equivalent, which was the right move. The question is, could this be done now for disabled students, or is it asking too much of the schools to add programs? Some districts may need to eliminate existing programs to make the accommodations, which could hurt the schools financially, since programs such as football and basketball can generate income.

Requiring current sports teams to give disabled athletes a fair chance to play is a great idea. After all, the education department's civil rights division tells schools and colleges that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right. But forcing the creation of expensive, additional leagues in order to accommodate special needs athletes is asking too much.

In some school districts, being chosen to play on an athletic team is difficult. Not every youth who tries out will always make a team, but this doesn't mean that the schools should be required to create separate leagues for those students who don't have the athletic ability to make the cut. The same holds true for students with disabilities who might not possess the athletic ability to play on certain teams. Athletic ability will not always be determined by an athletes disability, either. If a student is deaf, but can't shoot a basketball or hit a baseball, they should not make the team. It has nothing to do with their disability in such a case, but will there be a distinction in requiring a school to create another program?

We recognize that disabled students should be encouraged and given opportunities to represent their schools on the athletic fields and courts just like their peers, but creating potentially difficult economic hardships for schools in the process is not the answer. The education department should reconsider this portion of its requirement or else there could be drastic and unintended consequences. 

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Today's editorial was written by Sports Editor Al Edwards on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at kristenm@journaltribune.com.

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