Order From Education Department Puts Disabled, School Sports at Risk

So, a boy in a wheelchair comes up to the high school football coach and says, “I want to be a linebacker.”

And the coach says …”Of course. Under federal funding guidelines from the Department of Education, we have to let you play.”

No, that’s not funny, and it’s not a joke.

The Education Department is telling schools that disabled students must be given the chance to play on school teams, and if they just can’t modify the sport to accommodate the kids, then the schools need to create a parallel league for the disabled.

“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 Friday in an announcement of the new order.

If we could somehow harness stupidity as a form of energy, we would have a nearly endless power supply in the Department of Education.

This “guidance” is a disaster on several levels. But first, a dose of reality. There are already many disabled students who compete on school sports teams because their disability doesn’t require fundamentally altering the sport and, most importantly, they are able to keep up with their schoolmates.

For example, deaf athletes who want to run track or play a team sport can be accommodated pretty easily. There are even kids with missing limbs who can play if they have one  of the modern prosthetics. I have never heard of a school saying no to a student athlete who is able to keep up with his fellow athletes.

This is normal and sane.

Under the federal “guidance,” which is being touted as a Title IX for the disabled, schools will now have to find a way to accommodate the disabled on the regular school team or spend sparse resources on a new league for the disabled.

“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 leads a coalition that sought  the changes. “This is a huge victory.”

The wonks at the Department of Education insist that the students will still have to be able to compete and schools won’t be forced to completely alter their sports programs, but in the real world, once you put a policy like this in place, those things are just a lawsuit away.

This rule has a lot of potential for further “dumbing down” athletic competitions in school districts that already give ribbons out to every athlete who participates or that don’t keep score lest someone’s feelings get hurt. It’s also got a lot of potential for unnecessary student injuries.

But mostly, it’s going to cost cash-strapped schools a lot of money and end up depriving some kids who could genuinely benefit from athletic competition.

The Associated Press story on this new rule gives the real-life example of a teen in a wheelchair who is on his school’s track team. He suits up and gets to say he’s on the team, but he doesn’t actually get to race with anyone because track rules don’t allow for a wheeled athlete and runners on the same track for obvious reasons.

Instead, the boy goes out to his “event” by himself and races in  his wheelchair down to the finish line, then everybody claps. I’m glad the boy gets his exercise in front of an audience, but do they give him first place in his event? At some point, calling this sort of thing a sporting competition just becomes absurd.

I’m all for kids with disabilities going out for sports teams IF they can keep up with everyone else.  That’s the key. Those whose disabilities prevent them from competing  — and their schools — would be best served by a dose of honesty and by being channeled into an activity where they can truly excel.