Thursday, July 24, 2008

USA needs Title IX for disabled athletes

Runner Aimee Mullins advocates for more equity for disabled athletes.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. needs a law that amounts to Title IX for the disabled, advocates said in separate Capitol Hill briefings on the House and Senate sides July 22.

"Title IX is a landmark law that launched so many opportunities for women," said Aimee Mullins, president of the Women's Sports Foundation. "I think a similar law for the disabled could have the same impact."

Title IX bans sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds. This month Maryland enacted the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which requires schools to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to physical education classes and athletics programs.

"We need a law like Maryland's on the national level," said Mullins, a double-amputee who set Paralympic records in the 100-meter dash and long jump at the 1996 Paralympics.

"Opportunity is the start of the possible. If opportunity is not there, how many will go down that path of pushing themselves in self-discovery?"

Schools in Maryland have three years to phase in compliance. The bill provides an exception when inclusion "presents an objective safety risk to the student or to others or fundamentally alters the nature" of mainstream phys ed classes or athletic programs.

Other speakers included Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Steve Bobadilla, a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Md. Bobadilla, who plays wheelchair tennis, was at one point too overcome with emotion to read his statement during the House briefing.

"Education and perception are bigger obstacles than funding," Huebner said. When people are educated their perceptions change, he said, and they find sports for the disabled "is not only OK but something to be embraced and championed."

Mullins said it is especially important that disabled students have access to phys ed classes: "We see what other Americans are facing with the obesity crisis. And if you have a disability, you are three times more likely to be obese."

Terri Lakowski, public policy director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said what's needed next is a study by the Government Accountability Office to determine the state of scholastic participation opportunities for the disabled.

"We are only at the starting point" in the fight for a federal law, she said. "But we gained some traction today."